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The first Christmas Bird Count was held in 1900, with 27 participants in 25 count areas, from Toronto, Ontario to Pacific Grove, California. Over 100 years later the tradition continues. One of the most exciting events for birders and amateur ornithologists is the annual Christmas Bird Count. The purpose of this citizen census is to understand the status and distribution of wintering birds across
the Western Hemisphere.

Participation is open to all: ornithologists, amateur bird watchers, and people just interested in getting outside and learning more about their local feathered friends.

The count period, December 14th to January 5th, in North America is referred to as “early winter,” because many birds at this time are still in the late stages of their southward migration. When the data from this count is combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, a picture emerges of how the continent’s bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years.

To find the date of a Christmas Bird Count near you, and/or register for a count, go to CBC Count Date Search.

Understanding bird species population and early winter migration patterns offers insight into the changes brought about by urbanization and the effects of global warming, as well as localized information which may contribute to conservation efforts. For example, local trends in bird populations can indicate habitat fragmentation or signal an immediate environmental threat, such as groundwater contamination or poisoning from improper use of pesticides.

The predecessor of the Christmas Bird Count was a holiday tradition known as the ‘Christmas Side Hunt’. Participants would pick sides or teams and see who could bring back the biggest feathered bounty. As the Audubon Society was just beginning, it was decided that it would be better to count birds than shoot them, and since then the Christmas Bird Count has grown.

A tradition with a mission

The first Christmas Bird Count was organized by Frank Chapman and held Dec. 25, 1900, with 27 participants in 25 count areas, from Toronto, Ontario to Pacific Grove, California. They counted 90 species with a total of 18,500 individual birds.

Since then the Christmas Bird Count has grown to over 50,000 participants and 1800 count areas in North America and parts of Latin America. It has also become a family tradition for many at Christmas time, since any family member regardless of age can contribute.

The count area for each of the Christmas Bird Counts is 24 kilometers in diameter. This area is then divided into sections, which teams of birders wander around counting as many birds as possible. The counts are done during the day, with the exception of a few birders who like to head out in the early hours to find owls. At the end of the day there is a wrap-up for all participants. This is the fun time as all the numbers are totaled and the stories told.

Anyone can participate in the Christmas Bird Count. The teams are set up with an experienced birder and three or four members. The more eyes there are, the more birds can be counted. Participants in the Christmas Bird Count have varied experience and you do not need to be an expert to help identify the birds.

Children, with their keen eyesight, can be valued participants in spotting birds. The Christmas Bird Count is an activity which family members can enjoy together.

Feeder count for backyard birders

If you are unable to head out into the field and enjoy the Christmas Bird Count, there is also the Feeder Count which is an ofshoot of the Christmas Bird Count. This is simply to count birds at your backyard feeders for a period of time on the day of the Christmas Bird Count. You can still participate and help out while sitting in your favorite chair with a warm drink, relaxing and enjoying the birds.

From feeder-watchers and field observers to count compilers and regional editors, everyone who takes part in the Christmas Bird Count does it for love of birds and the excitement of friendly competition — and with the knowledge that their efforts are making a difference for science and bird conservation.

What to bring

You can enjoy the experience with nothing more than adequate clothing and a light lunch. However, a few essentials will make the day more rewarding. Here is the short list of what to bring:

  • A pair of field binoculars or a spotting scope; ideally, each member should have their own
  • A bird guide book; a book of birds local to your region is best
  • A pocket ‘field journal’ and pencil; anything to make notes on will suffice
  • A light lunch and bottle of water
  • Dress for the weather; wear comfortable water-resistant hiking shoes

To get the maximum benefit of the experience, it is advisable to leave personal entertainments like iPods and digital game devices at home.

Be sure to let others know your plans – where you plan to be, how many are in your group, and when you expect to return.