This year will mark the 113th consecutive year that the annual ‘Christmas’ Bird Count takes place. As you might imagine, the count has changed a lot in 113 years. Although the first count happened on Christmas Day in 1900, and it’s still called the Christmas Bird Count (CBC), it now takes place over a 23-day period from December 14 through January 5. The first count was organized by Frank Chapman, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History. 27 people volunteered to count birds in 25 locations from California to Ontario, and they documented a total of 90 species. By contrast, last year’s record CBC involved 63,227 observers in 2,248 ‘count circles’ across the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam. These volunteer ‘citizen scientists’ tallied nearly 65 million birds and 2,298 species, almost a fourth of the world’s total species. This year’s upcoming count may well establish new records, and will add a wealth of data to the pool drawn upon by researchers, scientists and decision makers. CBC results are collected, summarized and published annually by the National Audubon Society. The data have proven invaluable in monitoring the health of bird populations, and have led to habitat preservation and other conservation measures.
Frank Chapman undoubtedly would be impressed with the evolution of his idea, but he was motivated by circumstances that no longer exist in the U.S. As the 19th century drew to a close, birds were unprotected and, in some cases, threatened with extinction. Birds were killed for their feathers, for their meat and often just for sport. Incredible as it seems today, there was an annual event at the time designed to kill large numbers of birds for the ‘fun’ of it. Called ‘the Side Hunt’, this was a competition where participants chose sides to see which team could shoot and kill the most birds. Appalled by this, Chapman decided to provide an alternative, where participants would identify and count birds rather than kill them, and this first Christmas Bird Count took hold and eventually replaced the Side Hunt. Five years after the first CBC, Chapman was also instrumental in founding the National Audubon Society, which adopted and expanded the Christmas Bird Count.
You don’t have to belong to Audubon to participate, nor do you need to be an ornithologist or researcher. You don’t even have to be an expert birder, since each counting team is led by a qualified and experienced ‘compiler’. The compiler, or team leader, establishes the count date within the 23-day window, organizes the team into smaller groups to cover the 15-mile diameter counting circle, and compiles and submits the results. Volunteers are enthusiastically welcomed.
This year there are 35 counts scheduled for Arizona, in a variety of habitats including Buenos Aires NWR, Avra Valley, Nogales, Santa Catalina Mountains, St. David, Patagonia, Ramsey Canyon, Gila River, Madera Canyon and Dudleyville. Many of the leaders are well-known Arizona birders with years of experience in their designated count circles. The complete list of count circles, the count date and the compiler’s name, telephone number and email address can be found at the Tucson Audubon Society web site, www.tucsonaudubon.org. Help is needed on most of these counts, so if you find one that interests you, contact the compiler for more information. This is a great way to spend a fun day, meet others with similar interests, learn a lot about birds and make a positive contribution to the knowledge and conservation of birds everywhere. Beginning this year, it’s also free.
(This article originally appeared in the December, 2012 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)