More than a tradition, Christmas Bird Count furthers understanding of birds

11/8/2013 | 0

Northern Bobwhite by Rob Mancini.

Northern Bobwhite by Rob Mancini.

Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count will kick off a little over a month from today. This winter’s count will take place from December 14, 2013, to January 5, 2014.

Participating is fun, the data gathered are valuable, and there is no fee to participate.

Get details and find a count circle near you.

This winter’s count is the 114th. Each year, the CBC mobilizes over 70,000 volunteers in more than 2,300 locations across the Western Hemisphere — from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, and from above the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America — to track the health of bird populations at a scale that professional scientists could never accomplish alone.

Past counts revealed the dramatic impact that climate change is already having on birds and a disturbing decline in common birds, including the Northern Bobwhite quail (above).

The many decades of data not only help identify birds in need of conservation action but also reveal success stories. The CBC helped document the comeback of the Bald Eagle and significant increases in waterfowl populations, both the result of conservation efforts.

Last year’s count shattered records. A total of 2,369 counts and 71,531 people tallied more than 60 million birds of 2,296 different species. Counts took place in all 50 states, all Canadian provinces, and in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands. Three counts even took place in Cuba, where the Bee Hummingbird, the tiniest bird in the world, was included in CBC results for the first time.

Read a summary of the last Christmas Bird Count.

Last year’s count also recorded interesting incursions of Northern Shrikes, Snowy Owls, and winter finches. The most significant event was an unprecedented movement of Razorbills (a puffin relative) far south of their normal range off the east coast of North America.

See photos of Razorbills off Miami Beach in 2012.

Cedar Waxwing by Rob Mancini.

Cedar Waxwing by Rob Mancini.

Warming sea temperatures in the North Atlantic depressed the birds’ usual food supply, resulting in the appearance of tremendous numbers of hungry Razorbills almost 1,000 miles farther south than normal. Few Razorbills had been recorded in Florida and parts of the upper Gulf of Mexico prior to 2012. It is unknown how many of the birds were able to return northward to their breeding grounds for the summer of 2013; many washed up dead along the coast.

Count data are an integral part to the understanding of how these and other birds are faring in the non-breeding season.

“This is not just about counting birds,” says Gary Langham, Audubon’s chief scientist. “Data from the Audubon Christmas Bird Count are at the heart of hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies and inform decisions by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of the Interior, and the EPA. Because birds are early indicators of environmental threats to habitats we share, this is a vital survey of North America and, increasingly, the Western Hemisphere.”

The Christmas Bird Count began in 1900, when Frank Chapman, founder of Bird-Lore — which evolved into Audubon magazine — suggested an alternative to the holiday “side hunt,” in which teams competed to see who could shoot the most birds. The CBC has since become a treasured holiday tradition, a reunion with birding friends, and a way for anyone to play a small part in a big conservation picture.

CBC information is available online in Spanish (pdf). Results will be published online as well as in the quarterly journal American Birds.

About the artist: Rob Mancini

Robert Mancini is an award-winning illustrator and artist with a lifelong interest in nature and birds and a passion for shorebirds and waders. He lives in Melbourne, Australia. Mancini has illustrated many natural history titles, including books published by The Nature Company (among these Birding and Natural Gardening) and by National Geographic, Australian Geographic, and Readers’ Digest. You can view his artwork and purchase prints of the illustrations above on Etsy at RobManciniImages.

Find the Christmas Bird Count in our events calendar.

Visit Audubon online.