From the National Audubon Society, but edited for this blog: From December 14 through January 5 thousands of volunteers throughout the Americas take part in a birding adventure. For over one hundred years, families and students, birders and scientists, armed with binoculars, bird guides and checklists have gone out on an annual mission. Each of these citizen scientists who take part in the Christmas Bird Count makes an enormous contribution to conservation. Audubon and other organizations use data collected in this longest-running wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations and help guide conservation action.
Prior to the turn of the century, people engaged in a holiday tradition known as the Christmas “Side Hunt”: They would choose sides and go afield with their guns; whoever brought in the biggest pile of feathered (and furred) quarry won.
Conservation was in its beginning stages around the turn of the 20th century, and many observers and scientists were becoming concerned about declining bird populations. Beginning on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer in the then budding Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition-a “Christmas Bird Census”-that would count birds in the holidays rather than hunt them. So began the Christmas Bird Count; with the enthusiasm of twenty-seven dedicated birders, twenty-five Christmas Bird Counts were held that day from Toronto, Ontario to Pacific Grove, California. Those original 27 Christmas Bird Counters tallied around 90 species on all the counts combined.
The data collected by observers over the past century allow researchers, conservation biologists, and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent’s bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years. The Christmas Bird Count is vital for conservationists. It informs strategies to protect birds and their habitat – and helps identify environmental issues with implications for people as well.
In the 1980’s CBC data documented the decline of wintering populations of the American Black Duck, after which conservation measures were put into effect to reduce hunting pressure on this species. More recently, in 2009, the data were instrumental in Audubon Birds and Climate Change Analysis, which documented range shifts of bird species over time. In 2007, the data were instrumental in the development of two Audubon State of the Birds Reports – Common Birds in Decline- which revealed that some of America’s most beloved and familiar birds have taken a nosedive over the past forty years, and WatchList 2007 which identified 178 rarer species in the continental U.S. and 39 in Hawaii that are imperiled. These three reports helped scientists and policy-makers to both identify threats to birds and habitat, and promote broad awareness of the need to address them.