Christmas Bird Count
The chilly weather of December not only sends animals into warm dens, it brings bird lovers outdoors. Why would bird lovers head outdoors in chilly December? Because it's time for the Christmas Bird Count. Each year, people all across the Western Hemisphere, including Wisconsin, go outside from mid-December through early January and count birds for the annual Christmas Bird Count.
The count first started on December 25, 1900. Before this, the annual event was a Christmas hunt where hunters competed by heading into the fields to see who could kill the most birds. It was around this same time that people began to notice a drop in bird numbers and got worried about the contest and the number of birds taken. A leader of the Audubon Society, a group of people concerned about birds, asked for the contest to end and suggested that people count birds instead of hunting them. That year, 25 bird counts were held across the United States and Canada at Christmas time. A total of 18,500 birds and 90 species were counted.
Today, we're still counting birds. The annual survey is considered an "early winter" count because many birds at this time of year are still in the late stages of their southward migration, so you'll find not only our year-round resident birds, like the chickadee, but also some stragglers who are still on their way south. You're also likely to see winter residents--those birds that come from farther north to overwinter in Wisconsin, like the junco.
Why count birds? Because it is a fun way to enjoy birds and have fun with others. And, it is also the best way to track the number of birds and where they are found. The information collected is used by scientists to see how the bird populations on our continent change over time. The data can also tell us when there is a problem in the environment, like contamination, habitat loss, or poisoning that is harming bird populations.
Today, more than 50,000 people count birds during this event. Counts can be as short as eight hours and as long as 24 hours. If you join a count, you will be assigned to watch birds within a 15-mile circle - the same area surveyed each year. There may be two shifts of watchers - some in the daytime, and some at night listening for owls. Birds are identified by both their song and by sight, using binoculars if needed. You can pack a picnic lunch with warm hot chocolate to keep you warm if you go afield, or count the birds and record the species you see and hear at your favorite backyard feeder. At the end of the count, a compiler will take your information and enter it into the national database by computer along with information about the weather such as: temperature, wind direction and velocity, cloud cover, precipitation, and more.
Did you know that the information collected during the count is the longest running record of birds in ornithology (the study of birds). You can join the Christmas Bird Count, have fun, and become a citizen scientist at the same time. In Wisconsin there are many local birding groups, like the Audubon Society, that hold counts all across the state. Why not pick your favorite adult to go with you and head outside to count birds this year.