In its 114th year, the tradition of the Christmas Bird Count brings ornithologists and bird lovers together for a common purpose. The annual event began in 1900 as conservationists became concerned about dwindling bird populations due to hunting. An early officer of the Audubon Society, Frank Chapman, proposed the first annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) as an alternative to the holiday “side hunt” when hunters competed in shooting as many birds and small animals as they could.


Courtesy of the National Audubon Society

Each year from December 14 to January 5 bird lovers from all over the northern hemisphere participate in this form of citizen science. The crowdsourcing of data collected online from volunteer bird watchers helps to form a real-time snapshot of bird populations. Since its inception in 1905 the Minnesota Ornithologists Union estimates that the state has had more than 28,000 bird watchers participate in 70 census circles to tally 201 different species and some 8.5 million total birds.

The Grand Forks Herald reports that last year thousands of volunteers in more than 2,300 U.S. locations participated in the holiday bird-watching tradition. In 2012 the National Audubon Society allowed participants to sign up for free, which may have increased the number of volunteers and the ability to report sightings. It was a banner year in 2013 for the sighting of winter finches that include species such as Red-breasted Nuthatches and Pine Siskins. According to Wisconsin eBird significantly more Snowy Owls were spotted last year in the Pacific Northwest and Great Lakes regions. This year researchers are seeing a unique abundance of these particular raptors throughout North America. This phenomenon of unusual migration patterns is known as an irruption, where unprecedented numbers of a particular species migrate or flock to unusual locations.

Pine Siskin finch photo courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Pine Siskin finch
photo courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Bird rankings

Overall counts in the Midwest show that Canadian geese have a high number of reported sightings. According to a Minnesota Ornithologist Union 2012 report a total of 3,189,019 Canadian geese, 1,246, 919 House Sparrows and 1,098,736 mallards were counted. By comparison, the Wisconsin 2012 bird count shows 66,028 Canadian geese, 10,935 American Goldfinch and 10,512 European Starling as the top three birds reported.

More birders, less birds?

While sources indicate that it may be a good year for volunteer birder participation, surveys show that during the past 40 years the overall common bird population has been in decline due to environmental changes and habitat destruction. Last year, Minnesota reported the warmest winter in recorded history. Suburban sprawl and industrial expansion encroach grassland bird habitat causing a significant decrease in birds such as the Western Meadowlark. Climate change is a big problem but we can help birds fare better by providing outdoor bird feed stations and investing in bird feeders.

Get involved

The advanced birder may want to subscribe to the North American Rare Bird Alert (NARBA) website for $50 per year. One of the most unusual sightings in 2012 was a White-crested Elaenia seen near Chicago, situating the bird about 7,000 miles away from its South American home. There is still time to participate in the 2013 Christmas bird count through Jan. 5, 2014. You can sign up for free through the National Audubon Society and locate a chapter near you. Otherwise, look for information on the second annual Global Great Backyard Bird Count. Last year in February worldwide bird watchers turned in more than 120,000 checklists in 4 days with a count of 25.5 million global birds and 3,144 species.

CA Powers


~Birding that counts (Audubon Magazine)