Citizen Science in Action: The Christmas Bird Count


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By Mary Bomberger Brown, Linda R. Brown and Chris Thody

“…the secret to effective conservation is to follow the birds.”
—National Audubon Society President David Yarnold

Birds often found in the Christmas Bird Count include the adult pine siskin. (Paul A. Johnsgard)The Christmas Bird Count, sponsored by the National Audubon Society, is the oldest and largest citizen science event in the world. During this event, thousands of volunteers from all across the western hemisphere spend one day, always between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, out with the birds. On count day, birds are identified and counted in the field and at birdfeeders in a defined 15-mile (24-kilometer) diameter circle. These counts provide an estimate of the total number of birds, and the species of birds, found in the area on that day; everyone is welcome to join in.

The birds need you.

Last year, 11 Christmas Counts took place in Nebraska, 28 in Iowa, 23 in Kansas and 43 in Colorado. Most Christmas Counts take place near cities and towns, but there are a few in far-flung places like the Drake Passage off Tierra del Fuego and Mindo-Tandayapa, Ecuador. Some of the most valuable data for conservation come from Christmas Counts that have been taking place for a long time. Many of the first counts ever held, like the one in New York City’s Central Park (started in 1899), are still going strong. Unfortunately, many counts only last for a few years, participants move away, die or become infirm, so there are not enough people to carry on the tradition, and valuable data is lost.

There never have been many counts in Nebraska (the distribution of the population probably explains most of that). To have a Christmas Bird Count (CBC), you have to have someone or some group willing to organize it and have enough people to actually do the counting. There are enough birders in the eastern parts of the state to support a number of counts. But in the distant parts of the state there just aren’t enough birders. The Lake McConaughy and Crawford Christmas Bird Counts are in biologically interesting areas, and birders are willing to travel for those counts. Also, if and when the person organizing the count stops organizing the count (moves, dies, stops birding, etc.), oftentimes no one picks it up, and the count dies. Sometimes if the count is held in an interesting place (lake, prairie, etc.) and that place disappears (covered with buildings, pavement, etc.), the count disappears. A potential long-term problem for CBCs is that most birders are getting up in years; not many young people are taking up the hobby. Once all of us get too old and feeble to get out and bird, a lot of CBCs will end, and we will lose a lot of good data.

Participating in Christmas Bird Counts is a great way to enjoy the outdoors in the wintertime and to make a contribution to conservation and the environment. As a citizen scientist, your participation in the count will help Audubon and other organizations assess the health of bird populations, help guide conservation actions, and, this year, help scientists understand the impact of the Gulf oil spill on bird populations, especially vulnerable bird species. Longtime counters do it for the joy of friendly competition, but primarily we do it for the love of the birds. Because it’s true, the birds really do need you.

To learn more about the Christmas Bird Count tradition and other citizen science opportunities or to find a Christmas Bird Count in your area, visit / or your local Audubon Society. For a listing of Christmas Bird Counts in Nebraska and western Iowa and a brief history of the Christmas Bird count, please read The Christmas Bird Count in the December 2009 issue of Prairie Fire.


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