Christmas Bird Count

January 1, 2019

Tufted Titmouse (picture taken November 2018)

On this first day of the New Year, Mel and I decided to try something new! We participated in a local version of National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. Since we had never done this activity before, we were paired with another couple who had a lot of experience identifying and counting birds.

European Starlings (picture taken November 2018)

Prior to today’s adventure, Mel and I didn’t know much at all about the Christmas Bird Count (CBC), so I felt the need to do a little research. Basically, the CBC is a census of birds in the Western Hemisphere. The census is done annually between December 14th and January 5th by volunteers — just like us! The census is administered by the National Audubon Society and the information gathered over the last 119 years has been critically important for determining the long-term status of bird populations across North America. The long term data gathered, in turn, has been vital to conservationists for determining what strategies are needed  to protect birds and their habitat, and for determining  which environmental issues have critical implications for us. (Not unlike the canary in the coal mine scenario– if the canary dies, so do we!)

Rufous-sided Towhee (picture from the Internet)

What’s fascinating, I thought, was how this bird count originated.  Prior to 1900, many North Americans participated in the tradition of Christmas “side hunts”, where sides were chosen and hunters competed to see how many birds they could kill–  regardless of whether they had any use for the carcasses or whether the birds were beneficial, beautiful, or rare! In December 1900, all that changed when Frank Chapman, a U.S. ornithologist, proposed counting birds on Christmas instead of killing them! Brilliant, Frank, simply brilliant!

Red-tailed Hawk (picture taken January 2018)

You don’t have to be a bird expert in order to volunteer for the Christmas Bird Count, but you do need to comply with the rules and regulations set forth by the National Audubon Society to officially register your count. If you happen to live in a designated count area, you can just count the birds in your own backyard over a designated period of time on a specified date.

Rough-legged Hawk (picture taken from the Internet)

Our count today was similar to the Audubon CBC, but we were collecting our data for the Kalamazoo Nature Center.  Sometimes the Nature Center counts are done on foot, sometimes by car.  Since we had been assigned a very large geographical area (50-100 square miles maybe??), we went by car– and stopped frequently to roll down our windows to look (with binoculars and/or a viewing scope), listen and record data.  The husband and wife team we were working with today was incredible! They could hear, see and identify birds that never even showed up on my radar!

Great Blue Heron (picture taken January 2018)

After finishing our 4 ½ hour bird tour, all of the volunteers for the count got together for lunch to tally our collective results. In our group of about a dozen observers, we had seen thousands of birds, (our tallies included large flocks as well individual birds) and 58 different species!

Brown-headed Cowbird (picture taken May 2018)

In our car alone, we saw red tailed hawks, a rough legged hawk, brown headed cowbirds, starlings, crows, chickadees, cardinals, blue jays, tree sparrows, song sparrows, a rufous sided towhee, nuthatches, juncos, crows, titmice, Canadian Geese, and a great blue heron. (Because this was a ‘count day’ instead of a ‘picture day’, I didn’t have my camera with me and the photographs in this post were taken at another time, or were borrowed from the Internet.)

All in all, a very fun and educational day.

Dark-eyed Junco (picture taken November 2018)

4 thoughts on “Christmas Bird Count

  1. Can I ask a really dumb question Jeanne? How do you know that you haven’t counted the same bird twice or how many is in a flock? You can tell I’m not a twitcher!

    1. Good question! It’s mostly a rough estimate. The people we were with had a lot of experience. If there was a flock of birds, they’d give it their best shot. If they saw a particular bird and then another one of the same kind, they’d make an educated guess about whether it was the same one or a new one. Sometimes it helped having more than one set of eyes to make a determination, but there’s still a bit of guesswork involved.

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