This is a guest post by Rebecca Deatsman.
Once again, the holiday season is upon us and we’re taking the time to enjoy our favorite traditions. Baking Christmas cookies, trimming the tree, birdwatching… wait, birdwatching? For tens of thousands of people across North America, giving up a day of their precious holiday break to spend it finding and counting wild birds is just as much a part of this season as presents under the tree. The organizing force behind all of this is the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, the world’s most venerable citizen science initiative.
Long before the term “citizen science” had been coined, people in some parts of the U.S. participated in another Christmas tradition called the “side hunt.” Groups of people would form teams and take to the field with their guns, and whichever one returned at the end of the day with the most dead birds was the winner. However, around the turn of the century a man named Frank Chapman, an officer of the newly-formed Audubon Society, had an intriguing idea: why not replace the side hunt with another tradition, in which people would still go out and find as many birds as they could, but replace the guns with binoculars? In 1900, twenty-seven enthusiastic birders spent Christmas counting birds at locations spanning the continent from Ontario to California. That first year they tallied a total of ninety species, and the Christmas Bird Count has continued every year since.
The protocol has changed over time. Counts typically no longer happen on Christmas day, and instead can be held anytime during a three week period in late December and early January. Each count covers a specific circle with a 15-mile (24-km) diameter, with observers splitting up and recording every bird they see or hear all day – not just the number of species, but the number of individuals of each species. At the end of the day observers meet up to compile their data, which is then turned into the Audubon Society. But can such a simplistic method actually produce usable data?
In a word, yes. Not only does CBC data provide a record of bird populations going back over a century, it also covers a wide geographic area, from the Arctic Circle down into Central and South America, and this data has been used in numerous peer-reviewed papers. The Audubon Society provides a bibliography of hundreds of studies that have used CBC data on their website, spanning decades of ornithological research. Additionally, the Audubon Society uses the data to produce its own “State of the Birds” report, which has documented significant declines of many familiar birds, helping to identify species and populations at risk. Anyone can also access the same data to create graphs online or download and use however they want.
No experience is necessary to participate in a Christmas Bird Count – birders are generally more than happy to share their expertise with people who are new to the hobby. To find a count circle near you visit http://birds.audubon.org/get-involved-christmas-bird-count or use Google to locate the website of your state’s ornithological society. It’s a great way to meet interesting people, learn a new skill, and discover more about the place where you live. Happy counting!
Rebecca Deatsman is a graduate student in environmental education at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where she is studying how environmental educators use social media. She blogs about natural history and sense of place at Rebecca in the Woods and can also be found on Twitter as @rebeccanotbecky. This will be her seventh year of participation in the Christmas Bird Count.