Christmas Bird Count: Citizen science for the birds

At 117 years old, the Christmas Bird Count is the “granddaddy of them all” — of all citizen science projects. Learn a little about the history of this grand project, why it matters and why so many people participate

by GrrlScientist for The Guardian | @GrrlScientist

Adult male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). (Credit: David Stimac, with permission.)

Long before television and the internet existed, people started to organise and participate in citizen science projects. The first formal citizen science project in the world was the Christmas Bird Count. This is an annual event that was started in 117 years ago, when ornithologist and writer Frank Chapman, then-curator of birds at the American Museum of Natural History, decided that people needed to do something during the Christmas holidays that didn’t involve slaughtering thousands of wild birds. Instead, he decided, they should hold an annual census.

Portrait of ornithologist and writer Frank Chapman (1864– 1945), curator of birds at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Chapman was the founder of the annual Christmas Bird Count, the longest running citizen science project in the world. (Photograph: Public domain)

From this humble beginning, the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) took flight. The first CBC had just 27 volunteers, all friends and associates of Dr Chapman. But it has grown to encompass more than 60,000 volunteers of all ages, races and levels of expertise, who go to more than 2200 locations throughout the United States, Canada, Central and South America, the West Indies and the Pacific Islands, to identify and count every individual bird they see — more than 60 million birds.

“The Audubon Christmas Bird Count harnesses volunteer power to gather knowledge that shapes conservation policy at enormous scales in this country. I couldn’t be prouder of the 60,000-plus volunteers who contribute each year”, said Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold, in a press release.

“This is the largest, longest-running animal census on the planet, and we’re all proud to be a part of the CBC.”

But why go out in the cold, the snow, the wind or the wet, to count wild birds? Why not go Christmas shopping instead? Or just sit back in a local pub, and wrap your blue fingers around a hot buttered rum?

“Because birds are early indicators of environmental threats to habitats we share, this is a vital survey of North America and, increasingly, the Western Hemisphere”, said Gary Langham, Audubon’s chief scientist, in a press release.

In addition, volunteers spend their time looking at birds, and enjoying them simply because they live.

Adult male wood duck (Aix sponsa). (Credit: Frank Vassen / CC BY 2.0)

And the best part? CBC data is freely available to anyone in the world.

“This is not just about counting birds,” said Dr Langham. “Data from the Audubon Christmas Bird Count are at the heart of hundreds peer-reviewed scientific studies and inform decisions by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of the Interior, and the EPA.”

But what is it like to actually spend part of your busy life counting birds for a CBC? There are a lot of videos that capture what this experience is like, but this particular video features the thoughts and experiences of a French woman who participates in the CBC.

Video by Bob Sacha of Sacha Storytelling.

You can learn more by exploring the Audubon Society’s dedicated CBC page. Live in the Americas? There is a Christmas Bird Count scheduled near you between 14 December and 5 January every year.

Raven foot prints in fresh snow. (Public domain.)

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Originally published at The Guardian on 6 December 2014.