Most people in the birding community have heard of the Christmas Bird Counts (aka CBC), but many probably aren’t aware how this annual tradition started. Frank Chapman, a founder of the National Audubon Society and Curator of Birds at the American Museum of Natural History, began the CBC as a way to draw attention to the plight of birds before they were federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
Chapman, an avid hunter, was repulsed by Christmas “Match Hunts” where teams of marksmen would fan out across fields and woodlands, shooting and killing any wild animal. Sadly, due to their commonness, birds took the brunt of the slaughter. Whichever team had amassed the largest pile of game by the end of the day was declared the winner. Chapman reasoned, why not create an event that combines conservation with a competitive spirit without killing and senseless waste? Chapman pitched his idea to like-minded friends and the CBC was born.
The first CBC was held on December 25th, 1900 and tallied 18,500 individual birds by 27 participants. Today, sponsored by the National Audubon Society in cooperation with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the event has become the most popular and comprehensive wildlife census of any kind with over 50,000 birders tallying over 100 million individual birds. CBC census data, which is systemically collected in circles and regions that don’t overlap, has helped to illuminate ornithological patterns, such as the cyclical nature of winter finch invasions, population densities and ranges of winter bird populations, and more.
CBCs are generally organized by Audubon chapters and other birding or conservation organizations. Each individual count is performed in a count circle with a diameter of 15 miles. Several volunteers, including a compiler to manage logistics, count in each circle. They generally break up into small parties and follow regular assigned routes, identifying and counting every bird they see. Anyone can participate in a CBC. Each citizen scientists who braves snow, wind, or rain makes an important contribution to bird conservation. To learn more about participating in a CBC near you, visit Audubon.org at the link below.
Article and photo of Northern Cardinal contributed by Mike McDowell, an avid digiscoper, amateur naturalist, and Eagle Optics employee.