What are Christmas Bird Counts?

What are Christmas Bird Counts?

Binoculars

The concept behind Christmas bird counts began over a century ago with scientist Frank M. Chapman. He was an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and an officer in the relatively new Audubon Society. In 1900, Chapman led a small group on an alternative to the “side hunt,” when teams competed to see who could shoot the most game.

Fritz Griffith

Frank M. Chapman

Instead, Chapman proposed they identify, count, and record all the birds they saw. The idea rapidly gained momentum and more and more people across the country began their own bird counts in the years that followed. Today there are over 60,000 volunteer citizen observers who participate in the bird counts.

Many such bird counts are conducted this time of year throughout Ohio, the other 49 states, all the Canadian provinces, and even other countries. Each count occurs on a specific day during the period from mid-December through the first weekend of January.

Results of each Christmas Bird Count (CBC) are submitted to the National Audubon Society, which compiles the results and publishes a summary in American Birds magazine. The public can also access historical data of every CBC on National Audubon Society’s website.

All of the participants are volunteer birding enthusiasts. People take part in bird count for various reasons. For some, birding is a favorite hobby and they enjoy the search for a big variety of species. Others do it for the scientific data-gathering aspect to monitor bird populations. Still others do it for the camaraderie and having a reason to get out of the house and explore the countryside on a winter day.

Bird Lore

American Birds

As previously stated, the practice of conducting Christmas-time bird counts quickly gained popularity in the early 1900s. Over the first decade or so, the extent of record-keeping by bird counters was not consistent. Furthermore, the level of effort and area of coverage varied widely between bird counts. National Audubon Society emerged as the central point for gathering the data. NAS then compiled the CBC results annually in its “Bird Lore” publication which eventually became “American Birds”.

NAS also developed standardized guidelines for bird count organizers to follow as would be expected for conducting scientific biological field studies. This included such aspects as:

  • Designation of a 15-mile census circle for every count,
  • Confining the count period to be December 14 through January 5,
  • Stipulating that each count must be taken within a 24-hour calendar day,
  • Data must be reported about weather conditions, number of observers, amount of field observation time for each party, distances traveled, and modes of transportation.

The first known CBC in Ohio was at Oberlin on December 25, 1900 by one observer for 3.5 hours, seeing 13 species.

The longest running Ohio count is Cadiz which has continued since 1901.

The Popularity of Christmas Bird Counts

Total Number of Bird Counts Currently Conducted Worldwide: 2,215
Total Number of Counts in the USA: 1,714
Total Number of Counts in Canada: 394
Total Number of Counts in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands: 107
Total Number of Participants for all Counts: 62,624 (52,850 afield, 9,774 watching feeders)
Total Number of Bird Species Recorded for all Counts: 646