Avian Expert Articles

The Christmas Bird Count

BlueJayChristmas Time: Remember Your Outdoor Birds

This holiday time of year is a busy time — gift gathering and giving and lots of things to choose from for us humans and our birds. While our “inside” birds are tucked into their warm cages, we might gaze out the window and wonder about our “outside“ birds! One important Christmas event with significant ramifications is the Christmas Bird Count of the Audubon Society.

The Christmas Bird Count was started as a way to replace a hunting tradition with one having important conservation ramifications. In the late 1800s, there was a Christmas tradition of a “Side Hunt” where “sides” where chosen and hunting of any feathered or furred creature was the sport of the day. The “side’ with the largest pile of animals and birds killed won the event. To counter this slaughter of animals, ornithologist and one of the organizers of the fledgling Audubon Society, Frank Chapman, organized the first Christmas day bird count December 25, 1900. This new tradition, the “Christmas Bird Census, would count birds during the holidays rather than hunt them. It all started with 27 birders who were willing to count these wild birds from Toronto, Canada to California. That first count included about 90 species of birds.

Each November, birders interesting in participating in the Christmas Bird Count or CBC can sign up and join in through the Audubon website. From December 14 through January 5 each year, tens of thousands of volunteers throughout the Americas brave snow, wind, or rain to take part in the effort to count our native wild birds. Audubon and other organizations use data collected in this long-running wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations — and to help guide conservation action.

The data collected by observers over the past century have allowed Audubon researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies 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 Audubon Society has been instrumental in understanding and assessing the impact of the climate and man on the wild bird populations. The data derived from the Christmas Bird Count have been shown to be an important conservation piece in the following ways:

  • Audubon’s 2014 Climate Change Report is a comprehensive, first-of-its kind study that predicts how climate change could affect the ranges of 588 North American birds. Of the 588 North American bird species Audubon studied, more than half are likely to be in trouble. Our models indicate that 314 species will lose more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has included Audubon’s climate change work from CBC data as one of 26 indicators of climate change in their 2012 report.
  • In 2009 CBC data were instrumental in the collaborative report by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service — State of the Birds 2009.
  • In 2007, CBC data were instrumental in the development of Audubon’s Common Birds in Decline Report, which revealed that some of America’s most beloved and familiar birds have taken a nosedive over the past forty years:  http//birds.audubon.org/sites/default/files/documents/report_0.pdf

All Christmas Bird Counts are conducted between December 14 to January 5, inclusive dates, for each season. Even though we are indoor birders with our parrots, you might also want to participate and learn more about those outside birds. There is a specific methodology to the CBC, and all participants must make arrangements to participate in advance with the circle compiler within an established circle, but anyone can participate.

Each count takes place in an established 15-mile wide diameter circle, and is organized by a count compiler. Count volunteers follow specified routes through a designated 15-mile (24-km) diameter circle, counting every bird they see or hear all day. It’s not just a species tally — all birds are counted all day, giving an indication of the total number of birds in the circle that day.

If you are a beginning birder, you will be able to join a group that includes at least one experienced birdwatcher. I have participated and enjoy watching and learning more about those outside birds. I marvel at their ability to make it through the bad weather.

A Helping Hand

When the days grow short, the winds kick up and the temperatures plummet, the resident birds need more shelter from those winds as well as some energy-dense foods. These birds switch from a summer diet of insects to a winter diet of fruits and seeds. High-energy seeds are most important to give them the energy they need to stay alive. The type of seeds vary based on the species of birds.

The Cornell University Ornithology laboratory has investigated the preferences and needs of a number of the common species of wild birds. If you are only able to feed one type of seed, the one that will work the best for the common species is black oil sunflower seeds. Cornell suggests that you might want to try to mix your own blend to increase the number of species of birds. Their suggestion is a simple large barrel recipe: take one bag of 25 pounds of black oil sunflower seeds, add one bag of 10 pounds of white proso millet, and finally add one bag of 10 pounds of cracked corn. Mix together, then cover. Your container should be a tight fitting metal container to keep out unwanted critters! Make sure that you feed the birds daily. Because these feathered friends depend on your food source, you may need to give additional feedings if snow storms cover the food or the weather becomes extremely cold.

Another food source that is often used for woodpeckers, chickadees, and nuthatches is suet or beef fat that can be placed in onion skin bags from your local butcher. These bags can be hung from tree branches in a wind-free or protected area. Peanut butter can also be used and put on pine cones to hang. These high-fat foods are very important for these species.

So this Christmas, you can go out and help our wild birds — helping to count them and learn more about their behaviors and feed them throughout the winter. It’s for the birds, you know!

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