This year marks the 115th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC.) Frank Chapman, an officer in the fledgling Audubon Society proposed the first Christmas Bird Count in 1900 as an alternative to the traditional “side hunt,” where groups would choose sides and go afield, guns a-blazing and whoever came home with the greatest number of dead animals was declared the winner. Twenty-seven participates held 25 CBCs that day and a total of 90 species were recorded. The 2012 CBC had 2,369 counts with 71,531 participants and included counts in Canada, Latin America and the Pacific Islands. The number of birds tallied in that 113th annual CBC was 64,133,843.
CBCs are the grandfather of “citizen science.” And while citizen science may be sloppy science, it has also proven to be valuable science. There will not be 50,000 bespectacled scientists in white lab coats followed by their statisticians evaluating and recording all the nuances observed afield. There will be you and I and some birders better than we and some birders not so good. Not every birder participating in a CBC will be able to differentiate between a female sharp-shinned hawk and a male Cooper’s hawk. But 99.999 percent of CBC participants do know what a robin looks like and a cardinal and a chickadee and most can count. And learning about population and distribution trends of common birds is just as important (if not more so) as noting how many European wagtails show up on this year’s CBC.
With more than 110 years under its belt, the CBC is the longest running ornithological database on the planet. Scientists at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, which has joined with Audubon to make CBC data more relevant and more accessible note that, “The CBC’s current relevance is as a comparative historical source of information on bird changes, a coarse means of capturing large bird changes, and a conservation-oriented recreational pursuit by birders. There are better ways of measuring changes in wintering bird populations. On the other hand, since the CBC system is already in place at no cost to anyone but those who participate and over long periods of time interesting trends are documented, the running of CBC’s by birders should not be discouraged.” Add to that a bibliography of scientific papers and articles that lists well over 250 titles that have incorporated CBC data and it becomes apparent that the science aspect of this citizen-science project, albeit primitive and unwieldy is of significant value.
But it was the citizen or social aspect of the CBC that got the ball rolling back 115 years ago and still sustains it. The camaraderie of being afield with like-minded souls probably rousts more CBC participants out of bed on those cold winter mornings than any thoughts of scientific contribution. And when darkness begins to envelope count day and participants gather to share lists and swap stories of the ones that did or didn’t get away it’ll be that camaraderie that takes center stage. And it’s that camaraderie that’s integral to conservation.
We didn’t create DuPont State Forest or preserve the Needmore Tract because we read, in some scientific journal, about the need to preserve biodiversity. We protected these areas because we were connected to these areas. We had experienced them. As the number of people who experience CBCs or other citizen-science projects increases the number of people who become connected increases. And the more people who are connected to more wild places, means more wild places will be protected.
For more info and a schedule of local and regional counts visit North Carolina Christmas Bird Counts and South Carolina Christmas Bird Counts.
And, in the spirit, please enjoy:
The Night Before Christmas Bird Count
by Don Hendershot
‘Twas the night before Christmas Bird Count and all through the house
Was the whirr of computers and clicks of the mouse.
Maps and notes were clipped to the copy stand with care
In hopes the long-billed curlew still would be there.
Compilers and counters tossed in their beds.
Visions of grosbeaks and palm pilots danced in their heads.
The GPS lay nestled and ready on the map;
Spotting scopes, binoculars all covered with lens caps.
Then all of a sudden, quietness — not clatter.
No mouses were clicking, what could be the matter?
On the screen was nothing, not even a flash.
How could it be — the computer had crashed.
There it was, quiet, not even a glow.
But wait, a laptop on the table below.
Quick type in birdsource.org and see what appears.
Whew, trogons and titmice, flickers and finches all are still here.
So reassuring to know; what a great trick,
Technology and nature merged with a click.
BBSes list CBCs, too many to name,
Bits, bytes and modems all part of the game.
On checklists, on palm pilots, listers were listin’.
On PCs, on Macs, ordinary citizens
Were lurking and threading, following it all.
Cyberspace packed as thick as the mall.
All the birds will be counted, most before they fly.
The rest will be IDed as they take to the sky.
Field guides perused by more than a few.
Sibley’s and Peterson and National Geographic too.
No source will be spared and that is the truth.
Wingbars and eyerings will be noted as proof.
Whistles and chirps and other bird sounds,
Properly noted and all written down.
Birders afield in boats and afoot
Will first count and then prepare to input
Data on species, data on numbers, in fact
Data all about birds; their presence — their lack.
Data on birds that eat seeds and eat berries;
Birds that nest in trees or in eyries.
Data spread across the WWW, high and low,
Just click on a hypertext and away you go.
There are cables and wires and plugs with teeth.
Some go over, around, or come up from beneath.
Small screens and big screens, the size of a telly,
All sitting on tables that wobble like jelly.
And placed carefully and safely away on a shelf,
A wireless computer one can use by oneself.
Into the field the counters are led,
Armed with technology from their feet to their head.
With Swarovski, Leica and Zeiss hard at work,
Birders count birds with barely a jerk.
Then off to Compaq or Dell or Macintosh they go
To key in their data under the computer’s soft glow.
When suddenly amid all the bells and the whistles,
A first year goldfinch clings to last year’s thistle.
And suddenly high tech or low tech, even no tech’s alright
It’s you and a bird sharing the same winter sunlight