News & Features

Christmas Bird Count for Kids

Photo by Star Dewar.
Photo by Star Dewar.

Engaging the next generation of citizen scientists is no small challenge in the 21st Century.  Throughout the early- and mid-1900’s, nearly nine million students passed through the Junior Audubon program after its start in 1910. It was a classroom experience offered by school districts for decades, but the program faded out in the ‘70s.  Talk about extinction!  Today, after this archaeological dig on Junior Audubon, a rebirth of new offerings is helping rebuild the excitement of birding and birdwatching. Once again, the focus returns to youth, family, and community.

Participants practice using binoculars during Binocular Boot Camp. Photo by Christine Hansen.

Participants practice using binoculars during Binocular Boot Camp. Photo by Christine Hansen.

The Christmas Bird Count for Kids is one of these important new volunteer movements that is gaining popularity across North America from Alaska to Florida. Thanks to some of that exhilarating Northern California innovation and creativity from co-founders Tom Rusert and Darren Peterie in Sonoma, along with their partner Bird Studies Canada, this holiday event is sweeping North America.  The range of unique organizations that volunteer and sponsor their own “CBC4Kids” is staggering. Nature preserves, botanical gardens, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, zoos, national and state parks, Rotary Clubs, National Wildlife Refuges, Audubon Chapters and nature centers, homeschoolers, museums, scouts, public and private schools, recreation departments, birding clubs…the list goes on. Today, a few years after “going public,” there are over 100 CBC4Kids in North America offered in Spanish, English and French—and this number is growing. For Tom Rusert, a recent winner of the distinguished Ludlow Griscom Award, the energy of sharing a passion for birding was originally harnessed through Junior Audubon in Western New York, and then grew through the discovery of Cornell’s Sapsucker Woods and the ongoing influence of Cornell Lab of Ornithology. To Rusert, citizen science is a lifestyle.

Photo by Christine Hansen.

Photo by Christine Hansen.

This half-day CBC4Kids is modeled partly on the traditional CBC geared largely towards adults and birding clubs. Compared to the traditional CBC, this event is a less rigorous citizen science adventure, designed more like a game for kids aged 8-16. Parents and their youngsters join birding team leaders in the fun of celebrating nature and the outdoors. After arriving, participants are divided into teams and pass through “Binocular Boot Camp” orientation. These small working teams then head out with a short local winter bird list and bird guide in hand. Teams then have 90 minutes and a specific half-mile birding route to record the species and count the total individual birds. Many teams get the exciting feeling of adding new birds to the (intentionally) short list. The enthusiasm builds when all the teams return for lunch and the much anticipated tabulation celebration. The compiler tallies the overall results on a computer and two kids from each team present their story to the assembled crowd of family members and friends. The final results are reviewed by experienced birders and then entered into the eBird database. This experience introduces hundreds of families to the value of  “All About Birds” and participation in citizen science.

Participants enter their results at the end of the day. Photo by Christine Hansen.

Participants enter their results at the end of the day. Photo by Christine Hansen.

Yes, there is something that adults and youth can do together besides shopping during the holidays: they can experience the wonder and beauty of birds in their winter habitats. Even in December and January, our feathered friends can capture our imagination and desire to venture out and pursue their discovery. The sport of birding is legendary and the CBC4Kids offers a wholesome family-centered citizen science adventure.

Anyone can join this global movement and start a CBC4Kids in his/her own area. The free “CBC4KIDS PlayBook” provides more details and step-by-step advice for new sponsors or interested organizations. In the U.S., you can contact Sonoma Birding for additional support documents and event coaching; in Canada, contact Bird Studies Canada at education@birdscanada.org. Finally, you can listen to a story about the CBC4Kids on NPR’s BirdNote, or like the project on Facebook.

–Article written by Tom Rusert of Sonoma Birding