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Citizen Science for the Holidays: Join the Christmas Bird Count



Get some fresh air this holiday season by helping out the Audubon Society. You’ll get to do science, gain valuable nature karma, and bask in afterglow of an experience that can’t be bought. Such are the advantages of the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, which takes place throughout the Western Hemisphere each year between December 14 and January 5. This year marks the 115th count, providing the esteemed nonprofit with crucial data on the variety of bird species and their populations over hundreds of thousands of miles. Ornithologists use this data to determine the health of each species and to guide conservation efforts in many countries.

No experience necessary, so lace up your walking shoes (or boots) and grab your binoculars.


The tradition dates back to 1900, when American Museum of Natural History ornithologist Frank Chapman promoted his newfangled idea in Bird-Lore magazine. Noting the American Christmas day tradition in which men—lacking a football game to watch—grabbed their shotguns, traipsed through fields and woods, and shot anything with wings, he said, “Hey, maybe instead of killing all these birds, we just count them?” Twenty-seven people thought that was a mighty fine idea and a tradition was born. What Chapman didn’t realize that day was that he also invented the concept of citizen science.

Uncle Frank wants YOU to count the birds!

Uncle Frank wants YOU to count the birds!

Last year, about 70,000 people participated in the Christmas Bird Count. A vast majority of those hail from North America, although everyone between Nunavut and Cape Horn is welcome to lend a hand. To facilitate its annual mission the National Audubon Society has joined forces with other organizations, including the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the Alexander von Humboldt Institute in Colombia, the National Network of Bird Observers, the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, and Bird Studies Canada.

Bird counting is an inexact science, but it’s better than no science at all. The more eyes and ears trained on the sky, the more accurate the results are likely to be. But more important than an accurate count is an accurate depiction of whether the population of a given species is trending up or down, how much, and in what location.

"Could you guys hold still for a moment?"

“Could you guys hold still for a moment?”

A count circle comprised of experienced, avid birders can serve as an early warning sign of declining bird populations that may warrant further study. The National Audubon Society uses its count data to produce its Common Birds in Decline report. For example, in 2007 the report stated at the Northern Bobwhite population had declined 82 percent in recent years from 31 million to 5.5 million due to a loss of habitat.

The Northern Bobwhite, suffering housing crisis in the country's high-rent districts.

The Northern Bobwhite, suffering housing crisis in the country’s high-rent districts.

Sounds Fun. What Do I Have to Do?

Go here to sign up for a count near you. Alternately, many chapters of the National Audubon Society operate independently, so check your state website. Volunteers are organized into count circles of at least 10 people, with one person assuming the role of head compiler. Each count circle canvases an area with a diameter of 15 miles; routes are pre-determined. Everyone counts each bird he or she sees or hears; birds aren’t counted when you back track through an area you’ve already covered. If your home falls within the count circle, you may get to watch your bird feeder. For science! When the count day is over, circle members meet for a “tally rally” to calculate their results. Here’s a FAQ with more details.

Do not count these birds.

Do not count these birds.

In recent years roughly 2,400 species have been observed, totaling 65 to 70 million winged creatures counted by 2,408 circles. Volunteers are increasing in countries such as Belize and Costa Rica. As long as you stick to the Western Hemisphere, you can participate in a count circle on your holiday ecotour! Chances are you’ll get to see the colorful rainforest birds that you aren’t likely to spot outside a zoo in North America.

Here’s a graphic with local count circles in the D.C. area. Note that some overlap, and some are smack dab in urban areas (get ready to count pigeons).

Bird Circles


Now let’s take a higher-level look: The birds of North America have lots of watchers.

Count circles2

If your holiday travels take you beyond the Western Hemisphere, never fear. You can join the annual Great Backyard Bird Count over President’s Day weekend, a much newer tradition that began in 1998. The idea is much the same, minus the 15-mile diameter. Its organized by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and it requires participants to tally the numbers and species of birds in their backyard over a span of at least 15 minutes any time during the four-day weekend. Don’t tell me you can’t fit it into your schedule.

The Rise of Citizen Science

The Audubon Christmas Bird Count is almost without doubt the oldest and largest citizen science project in the world. This is the process whereby everyday people voluntarily contribute to scientific endeavors, allowing researchers to gather much more data than they could on their own, even with a hefty grant and a room full of graduate students. SETI@home, a distributed computing effort in which millions of people run background programs to analyze radio telescope data in search of extraterrestrial intelligence, is one of the first citizen and most well-known science projects of the digital era.

Citizen Science

Birding is a natural for citizen science. Thousands of birders don their windbreakers and binoculars and take to the great outdoors each day, marking their sightings in notebooks, bird guides, and checklists. These individuals are scientific by nature, and many are happy to play an active role in conservation through their sometimes solitary pursuit. Birding and citizen science are also fantastic ways to foster curiosity and a respect for the scientific process in children, who can use all the extracurricular STEM help they can get.

But let’s say birds aren’t your cup of tea. Maybe you had a bad experience with a Blue Jay in your youth, or maybe you’re just more interested in astronomy, meteorology, or flowers. There is a citizen science project for you! Put down that game controller and check out Zooniverse, where you can do science by combing through historical weather data or counting wild animals in Mozambique via a remote trail monitor. Now that Mythbusters is going off the air, we need to exercise the critical thinking skills Adam and Jamie have drummed into us and be a little more pro-active in our scientific musings.

Not really. But the goggles ARE sweet.


Posted on: December 2, 2015, 10:25 am Category: Admin

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