Throughout our lives we develop new traditions over the Christmas holiday season; some with our families, some with friends, and some for our own pleasure. A new tradition that can begin at any age is to join a Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The time frame every year is between December 14 and January 5.
Begun in 1900 by a group of 27 Audubon Society members, this annual census is the longest running community bird project in the U.S. It has gone from a total of 89 species of birds counted that first year to a total of 2,646 counts in 2020 (the current year has not been completed or tabulated yet). There were 81,601 people looking for birds in 2020. Observations were made in the U.S., Canada, Latin America, the Caribbean and Pacific Islands.
However, it seems both surprising and worrisome that the total number of birds tallied that season dropped to 42,704,077 birds. In 2019 the total was 48,678,334 birds. The scientists who analyze the data plan to look at long-term CBC results, looking at species groups, numbers of birds, and the total effort each season, to determine where the largest declines seem to be happening.
The counts are done in a rough circular area 15 miles across. One person is designated the count compiler. I joined a group of people on December 28th to do a count in our County. We divided up into groups of 2-3 and were given a quadrant to survey in our vehicles. My friend Clarissa and I joined Ruth in her all-wheel drive vehicle, and set off on the back country roads, some of which were still covered by 10 inches of snow. With three sets of eyes we scanned the trees for birds. We soon saw a flock of small birds in a clump of trees, but with the grey skies we couldn’t make out any colors and they flitted away before we could identify them. I had to leave after 4 hours of searching, but in that time we saw numerous flocks of Common Redpolls – a small finch with a brownish streaked back. With a pinkish blush on the males breast and a red (‘poll’) cap on the heads of both males and females.
The best variety and numbers of birds were seen around birdfeeders and we were surprised and disappointed to find so many homes without any. All three of us enjoy constant bird activity at our homes because of the bird feeders we put up. By the time Ruth and Clarissa finished the survey they had counted over 300 Redpolls. This is a species that ‘irrupts’ some winters, coming south in large numbers. I look forward to getting a report after January 5th of the overall count results.
These types of censuses are leading to a much greater understanding of bird populations – their numbers and their locations. Recent years have shown more Neotropical migrants, like warblers, staying into the winter months in the northeastern parts of the U.S. and Anna’s Hummingbirds are doing exceptionally well in the Pacific Northwest.
Unfortunately, fewer and fewer Northern Bobwhite, American Kestrels and Loggerhead Shrikes area being counted in many regions of the country. These birds all require shrub lands and hedgerows, which are declining not only in the U.S., but worldwide. They also depend upon food that is negatively impacted by pesticides. As the data is compiled and analyzed, reports and plans are made available to agencies like the EPA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They can then use this information in their conservation efforts.
It is too late to join this year, but keep it in mind for December 2022. Just go to the Audubon website (https://www.audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count) to find out how to sign up for a count, and to learn lots more about all previous counts and summaries.