As fond as I am of Canadian television, that’s not what I’m referring to. As I type, radio stations are playing holiday jingles, stores have set up Christmas trees and menorahs, and it’s not even Thanksgiving yet. The holiday season gets bigger and earlier each year, it seems. However, for birders, the season is quite clearly defined: Christmas Bird Counts can occur between December 14th and January 5th each year. This long-running citizen science project aims to get birders outside surveying and counting the birds within areas delineated by 15-mile diameter circles. At the end of the event, the results are tallied and submitted to the National Audubon Society, where the data is put into summaries and used to study bird population dynamics.
Christmas Bird Counts are far more than just collecting data, however. They’ve become an integral part of the culture of birders in North America because they provide excellent opportunities to socialize with other birders and get outside during an otherwise quiet time of year. Birders have different strategies: some participate only in their local circle, while others plan to participate in a different CBC nearly every day during the three-week period, and still others end up somewhere in the middle.
Christmas Bird Counts are great for birders of all ages and skill levels–those who know an area and bird identification well can be paired with beginners, who benefit from spending time with experienced birders and learning from them. Young birders in particular are very welcome at Christmas Bird Counts, which are a great way to inspire new birders and to entertain skilled birders. Audubon has even recently launched the CBC4Kids program, which is designed to be a kid-friendly format of the CBC that emphasizes teaching and engaging new students (usually age 8-16) over the course of half a day. Like the traditional CBC, participants cover a designated area and count all of the birds they find; unlike a normal CBC, the CBC4Kids program also includes lessons on using binoculars and identifying common birds. You can find out more about the CBC4Kids program, including how to start your own, here.
Young birders can also play an important part in regular CBCs as well. In many cases, young birders are active participants alongside their older counterparts. As there is no age limit to start a circle or run one, many skilled young birders take on leadership roles in the community by starting their own circle or taking over the coordination of all or part of a circle (I run Area 1 of the Ann Arbor, Michigan CBC, and I usually have two or three different groups of birders to cover different hotspots in that area). Coordinating a CBC requires good communication and networking skills, a familiarity with which local areas should be covered, and some time to compile and submit the data. Since they usually happen over winter break, it is usually easy for many students to fit them into their schedules.
Around the time of year that many families are coming together to share each other’s company, the CBC enables birders to bring together their local communities and enjoy their free time watching birds and helping collect scientific data. Participation in a CBC is free and does not require you to be a skilled birder. CBC’s are open to anyone who is interested, and the time commitments are flexible. You can find out more information about CBCs, including a map of this year’s circles and dates for this year’s CBCs, here. After the event, it’s easy to enter your sightings into eBird and contribute to the world’s largest citizen project. Instructions for entering CBC data can be found here. Good birding!