Today the annual census has become the longest running database in ornithology and is considered the Audubon’s signature program or as LeBaron says, “the grand daddy of citizen-science projects.”
“Each of the citizen scientists who brave snow, ice, wind or rain to take part in the Christmas Bird Count is making an enormous contribution to conservation,” he says.
“Counting is the first step in learning how environmental threats are affecting our birds,” says LeBaron. And what harms birds, he says, in an early warning indicator of what can harm humans. Local trends in bird populations can signal environmental threats such as groundwater contamination or poisoning from the incorrect use of pesticides.
A similar thought was echoed after the November 2007 San Francisco Bay oil spill which killed about 20 birds and oiled another 150. At the time, Gary Langham, director of bird conservation for Audubon California, noted, “If something is wrong in the environment, birds will typically be the first to tell us….The San Francisco Bay is a vital ecosystem for migrating birds in this hemisphere, so it’s not surprising at all that they are bearing the brunt of this disaster.”
Thousands of volunteers throughout the United States, Canada as well as 19 Latin American countries, hike out during a 24-hour period to count birds. Veteran compilers organize the volunteers by assigning them to a 15-mile diameter circle within which the volunteers count every bird they see or hear all day. There are also bird feeder counters who live within the count circles who can collect the same data. At the end of the day, the participants get together for a tally.
To join the Christmas Bird Count, contact a compiler by selecting “Get Involved” from the CBC home page. There is a $5 fee per participant. Bird feeder watchers do not pay this fee. All counters, 18 and under, are also free.
The geographic count circles, says LeBaron, are chosen because they are areas where birds spend a significant time of their life cycle. Last year’s census contained 2,113 count circles, with about 1,600 in the United States, 400 in Canada and the rest in Latin America. One circle, he says, is not more important than another. The circles range from city or suburban locales to New York City’s Central Park.
“There’s no formal training for the volunteers,” says LeBaron, “but there’s a lot of mentoring among serious birdwatchers. I love to take out new people. It seems like there’s a lot of beginner’s luck with them. You can stumble onto some unusual sightings. Longtime birders sometimes get jaded when counting the common species.”
The material gathered during the Christmas Bird Count allows researchers and conservation biologists to study the long term health of birds and track how bird species have shifted across the Western Hemisphere. One example where the CBC was helpful was in 1980 when the CBC data revealed a decline of the wintering populations of the American Black Duck. As a result of this data, conservation measures were taken to reduce hunting of this species.
And in 2007, the CBC data showed that some of the United States’ most common birds had declined in the past 40 years. This information, along with WatchList 2007 (which identified 178 rare species in the US that were endangered), helped scientists and lawmakers focus on threats to birds and habitats, and raise consciousness on the need to address them.