29 Nov 2019

How one man changed a Christmas tradition forever – to save birds

How did a continent go from shooting birds every Christmas to counting them? Discover the Audubon Christmas Bird Count – a holiday tradition that has transformed bird science.

Northern Cardinals © Steven Russell Smith Ohio / Shutterstock
Northern Cardinals © Steven Russell Smith Ohio / Shutterstock
By Jessica Law

This year, between December 14 and January 5, tens of thousands of bird-loving volunteers will venture outdoors into the wintry weather, braving deep snow, lashing rain or gale force winds to count as many birds as they can. With whole families breaking away from the excesses of Christmas to take a welcome and refreshing walk in nature, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count has become a firm family tradition across the Americas and beyond, making it one of the longest-running wildlife censuses in the world.

But when it started 120 years ago, the scene was far from idyllic. Back in 1900, the fashionable holiday tradition of the time was the Christmas ‘Side Hunt’, where groups of hunters would choose sides and venture outside to shoot every wild animal they set eyes on. The team who brought in the largest pile of quarry won. So much for the Christmas spirit.

Thankfully, around this time, scientists were beginning to become concerned about falling bird populations. And so, on Christmas day 1900, Dr Frank M. Chapman, founder of Bird-Lore – which evolved into Audubon magazine – proposed a new holiday tradition. His idea was to go out and count birds, rather than hunting them. That day, with the support of 27 dedicated birders across the Americas, 25 Christmas Bird Counts were held from Toronto to California.

Fast forward to Christmas 2018, and this stalwart group of hard-core birders had ballooned to 79,425 ordinary citizens across the Americas and the Western hemisphere. Last year, citizens spotted over 48 million birds, representing 2600 different species—more than one-quarter of the world’s known avifauna.

It sounds like the perfect Christmas fairy story – a tale of redemption and compassion triumphing over destruction that even Ebenezer Scrooge would be proud of. But it’s not just a heart-warming fable – the Audubon Christmas Bird Count is also an important practical tool to study and protect birds.

“The Christmas Bird Count is a great tradition and opportunity for everyone to be a part of 120 years of ongoing community science,” said Geoff LeBaron, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count director, who first started leading the community science effort in 1987. “Adding your observations to twelve decades of data helps scientists and conservationists discover trends that make our work more impactful.”

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When combined with data from other initiatives such as the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the bird count provides important information about how – and where – America’s bird populations have changed over the past century, and what we can do to help them. To date, Christmas Bird Count data has been used in more than 300 scientific articles, and this year informed an important report in Science showing that North American bird populations have plummeted by 3 billion since 1970. Every participant makes a difference to our understanding of the situation.

So how does the Christmas Bird Count work, and how can you get involved?

Each individual count takes place in a 15-mile-wide circle and is led by a compiler responsible for organizing volunteers and submitting observations directly to Audubon. Within each circle, participants tally all birds seen or heard that day—not just the species, but total numbers, to provide a clear idea of the health of that particular population. To sign up for a Christmas Bird Count, just find the circle nearest to you and register on this map here.

This year, a brand new feature will be CBC Live, a crowd-sourced ‘story-map’ that will ask users to upload a photo taken during their outing, as well as a short anecdote, to paint a global picture of the Christmas Bird Count in real time.

Christmas is all about creating your own traditions with the people you love. So if you fancy a break from scoffing and quaffing over the holidays, consider becoming part of this 120-year old institution – or checking out similar citizen science projects going on across the world, all year round. If a single person can make such a big difference to bird conservation, then so can you.

Register to join the Audubon Christmas Bird Count here.