Bird enthusiasts are chirping about a much anticipated and celebrated campaign — the annual Christmas Bird Count coordinated by the National Audubon Society.
The count, set to take place through Jan. 5, is in its 117th year, making it the longest-running wildlife census in the world. It involves tens of thousands of bird-loving volunteers.
Each individual count takes place in a 15-mile-wide circle and is led by a compiler responsible for organizing volunteers and submitting observations to Audubon. Within each circle, participants tally all birds seen or heard that day — not only the species observed, but also total numbers, which can provide a clear idea of the health of that population.
The data the volunteers collect contributes to one of only two large existing pools of information notifying ornithologists and conservation biologists about what conservation action is required to protect birds and habitat.
When combined with surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, the information provides a picture of how the continent’s bird populations have changed over the past hundred years.
“Adding observations to more than a century of data helps scientists and conservationists observe trends that will help make our work more impactful,” said Geoff LeBaron, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count director.
“It’s never been easier to be a citizen scientist and it’s never been more important to be one,” said David Yarnold, president and CEO of the National Audubon Society. “Birds and the people who watch them are noticing changes. Using the data gathered by more than a century of Christmas Bird Counts, Audubon will keep protecting birds and the places they need. I’m incredibly proud of the volunteers that contribute to this tradition.”
Last year, the census included a record-setting 2,505 count circles, with 1,902 counts in the United States, 471 in Canada and 132 in Latin America, the Caribbean, Bermuda and the Pacific Islands.
In total, 76,669 observers tallied up 58,878,071 birds representing 2,607 different species — about one-quarter of the world’s known avifauna.
“From Alaska’s Arctic coast to Tierra del Fuego, and from Newfoundland to Los Angeles, the 117th CBC is a tradition that everyone can participate in,” LeBaron said.
About 5 percent of the North American landmass was surveyed by the Christmas Bird Count in 2015.
Count data have been used in more than 200 peer-reviewed articles, including Audubon’s landmark Birds and Climate Change Report, which found that more than half of the bird species in North America are threatened by a changing climate.
One finding from last year was the continued decline of the Northern bobwhite, the only native quail in the eastern United States. Record low numbers of this species were observed from the Midwestern states to the mid-Atlantic and down to Florida.
Meanwhile, the Eurasian collared-dove — introduced to the Bahamas in the 1970s from its native Europe — was observed in record high numbers from North Carolina throughout the Midwest and northward to the Great Lakes and southern Canada.
These two species are of great concern as Audubon volunteers embarked on their 117th count.
On Christmas Day in 1900, Frank M. Chapman, founder of Bird-Lore — which evolved into Audubon Magazine — proposed a new holiday tradition: counting birds rather than hunting them.
Conservation was in its beginning stages in that era, and many observers and scientists were becoming concerned about declining bird populations. So began the Christmas Bird Count.
The Christmas Bird Count is a citizen-science project organized by the National Audubon Society. There is no fee to participate and counts are open to birders of all skill levels. Audubon’s free Bird Guide app makes it even easier to chip in.
For more about the Christmas Bird Count, including how to participate in Wisconsin, go online to christmasbirdcount.org.
Lisa Neff is senior news editor for the Wisconsin Gazette.