In less than a week, nearly 60,000 people will set out to carry on a tradition that is more than a century old. The 112th annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is the largest, and possibly most important, census of North American birds that takes place every year.
Most of the counters who will set out armed with a notepad and binoculars, often bundled against the cold, are not trained scientists. They are everyday people, volunteers. This volunteer effort is the largest, oldest crowd-science effort on the planet.
The Christmas Bird Count exemplifies the spirit of the National Audubon Society, a national community of bird-lovers, conservationists, and advocates. They share a reverence for nature and a belief that by saving birds and their habitats, we also save ourselves.
Both Audubon and the CBC trace their roots to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Audubon movement grew out of public outrage at the slaughter of wild birds, killed so that their feathers could be used to decorate the hats of fashionable women. This was the case with the magnificent Great Egret, hunted to near extinction in the early 1900s, and now the symbol of the National Audubon Society.
The Christmas Bird Count, proposed by one of Audubon's founders, Frank Chapman, began in 1900 as an alternative to bird-hunting competitions. In these contests, called side-hunts, hunters would choose sides to see who could kill the most birds. Chapman challenged birders to count rather than kill birds. This "new kind of hunt" became the Christmas Bird Count.
Twenty-seven birders in 25 locations accepted that first challenge and they reported a total of 90 species.
A century later, from Alaska to the Amazon, tens of thousands of people volunteer every December to count birds. Last year, 62,624 counters tallied more than 61 million individual birds.
Audubon scientists use the accumulated CBC data to track critical bird trends. Those data are used to determine where to keep open land and how to protect breeding and feeding grounds to keep bird species healthy. Recent analyses have revealed the dramatic impact that climate change is already having on bird populations across the continent.