A Christmas Season Tradition

The Christmas Bird Count occurs during this time of year every year. This tradition began in 1900 to counter an even older tradition, called the “Side Hunt”. The Side Hunt was popular at Christmas time during the 19th century, hunters would form competing teams and see which side could shoot the largest number of birds and other critters.

An officer of the Audubon Society, a Mr. Frank Chapman, sought to alter the traditional Side Hunt by changing the competition from bagging the most birds to counting the most birds, of all species, during a 24 hour period. The first Christmas Bird Census, on Christmas Day 1900, consisted of 27 birders performing 25 bird counts throughout the U.S. and Canada, including three in New Jersey. The total combined species seen from California to the East Coast was 90 with the majority of counts being performed in the Northeastern United States.

Since 1900 the annual event has grown in popularity with “birders” across the nation and has become for many, a family tradition passed on from one generation to the next. What began as one of the first efforts to publicize the need to conserve and protect wild animal populations has grown into the largest and oldest “citizen science” event in the Western Hemisphere. Last year, over 57,000 people took part in 2052 counts that identified 1894 different species of birds throughout the Americas. The vast majority of counts take place in the United States and Canada.

Christmas Bird Counts are organized all over North America, as well as scattered locations throughout the Western Hemisphere. Each individual count, known as a CBC Circle is organized by a compiler who is responsible for defining the count area, recruiting and training participants and scheduling the count on a day within two weeks of December 25th (Dec. 14th – Jan. 5th).

A CBC Circle is an area that is fifteen miles in diameter. Newly organized CBC Circles are reviewed to ensure no overlap with existing circles. A minimum of ten participants is needed to organize a new Circle, but in some established Circles, the number of participants exceeds 100. On the scheduled day, participants break up into small parties and follow assigned routes, counting every bird they see. In most Circles, there are some people who watch feeders instead of following routes.

Data resulting from the Count — weather, time, number of species, number per species, rare or unusual sightings, etc. are reported by the compiler to the National Audubon Society. The results are by no means an accurate census. The entire Circle is not covered, not every bird along the routes is seen or identified. Big flocks can’t be counted precisely. The skills of participants varies from team to team. Rules are in place to address these problems.

The results of the efforts of these participants recording over a century of unbroken data on trends of early-winter bird populations, has been compiled into an ornithology database that when combined with data from other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, gives insights into how North American bird populations have changed over the last 100 years. Numerous scientific papers using data from the Christmas Bird Count have been written by researchers over the years. In recent years, the data have been used to study the spread and impact of West Nile Virus, the spread of introduced species, the decline of native species, the effects of habitat fragmentation and even climate change.

The nearest circles to Delaware Township are in northwest Hunterdon County and in Somerset County. To find out more about the Christmas Bird Count, visit http://www.audubon.org/bird/cbc/.

The Christmas Bird Count for this year is almost over, but a mid-winter event is approaching that anyone with 15 minutes to spare can participate in. The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) takes place every Presidents Day weekend and is scheduled for February 15 – 18, 2008.  More on the Great Backyard Bird Count and citizen science in the next article.