Christmas Day, that celebration of miraculous birth, used to be the occasion of a massive, annual slaughter of avian life in America. According to Audubon, the world’s premiere bird conservation organization, 19th century hunters enjoyed marking the holiday by dividing into local teams and competing to see how many birds they could shoot.
The widespread destruction wasn’t for food, according to Audubon. It was just for sport — to rack up the biggest pile of carcasses — at a time when birds were considered a limitless resource.
But ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer of what would become the Audubon organization, hatched a different idea for Christmas Day 1900: count them, don’t kill them. Chapman’s inspiration led 27 different birding parties, from California to Canada, to take a serious look around, tally up their sightings and combine them in a database that’s been growing ever since.
Today, citizen scientists — otherwise known as volunteers — can contribute to several ongoing, overlapping bird-count projects, just by going for walks or even watching visitors to their feeders, and then logging their sightings with a handy app.
Christmas Bird Count
Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count begins today and lasts through Jan. 5. Participation may take a little time and travel, since volunteers are usually tasked with traversing a set route across a 15-mile birding “circle” at a predetermined time, and forwarding their sightings to a local compiler.
“The idea is to cover your assigned territory,” said compiler Susan Setterberg of Ridgefield, a longtime birder and active member of Audubon’s Vancouver chapter. “You can count any amount of time in the 24-hour period of the designated day.”
Participants are usually assigned to teams, she said. Beginners are paired with experienced birders. Last year’s local Christmas Bird Count saw 67 participants and 33 teams covering 103 miles in all, she said.
“Teams ranged from single individuals to a family group of five. Some people start before dawn to listen for owls or stay into the night to do the same,” Setterberg said. “Most teams cover their areas in four to eight hours.”
But, if you’ve got a yard feeder and you’re located west of Interstate 5 and north of Fourth Plain Boulevard, Setterberg said, you likely needn’t travel at all because you’re already in one of those birding circles.
“I am especially interested in anyone who would like to participate by counting around a feeder” in northwest Vancouver, west Hazel Dell, Felida, Salmon Creek and Ridgefield, she said. If you’re interested, Setterberg recommends reviewing the details and signing up via the latest Vancouver Audubon newsletter.
Project Feeder Watch
Project Feeder Watch is a separate, winter-long effort, begun in Canada and adopted by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. It focuses on bird activity November through April. Volunteers’ self-directed task remains pretty much the same: log the bird activity around your feeder and in your yard using an app on your phone or laptop. Unlike Audubon’s Christmas count, Project Feeder Watch requires a small fee ($18) to participate.
“The goal is one backyard feeder, two days in a row, minimum 15 minutes each day and spaced a minimum of five days apart,” Setterberg said. “But if you miss a week or a month, just pick it up when you can.”
Great Backyard Bird Count
The entry-level bird count for beginners is the Great Backyard Bird Count, co-sponsored by Cornell, Audubon and Birds Canada. No fee, no itinerary, and a time commitment as brief as 15 minutes — or as long you like during the four-day event. The next Great Backyard Bird Count is set for Feb. 18-21.
“You could do however many hours you want in the four days,” Setterberg said.
And you don’t have to stay home; stake out your favorite park or other bird-watching spot if you like.
While participation in bird counts has rocketed in recent years, the coronavirus pandemic complicated matters. The convenient, stay-at-home Backyard Bird Count set records in 2021, with more than 300,000 participants estimated worldwide, while Audubon’s more complicated and mobile Christmas count declined by about 10,000 participants.
And yet, Audubon’s final report says, both sheer numbers and quality of data was up. There may have been fewer birders in the field overall, but they added 43 new birding circles to the data.
“Instead of a few larger groups of observers for each count circle, folks were in more and smaller groups, and spent a higher percentage of their time on foot rather than car birding,” wrote Christmas Bird Count director Geoff LeBaron.
Self-selecting amateurs looking only in certain spots, and self-reporting iffy data (was that a swallow or a swift?), may sound like the most unscientific of surveys. But scientists know how to crunch the numbers carefully, Setterberg said. They know how to spot errors and adjust for variables, like many more birders participating and contributing both quality and poor-quality data, she said.
Since the same individual bird may return to the same feeder many times within your viewing window, participants get detailed instructions for accurate reporting without counting the same bird twice. Don’t give up just because your yard attracts only “predictable” (boring) birds, or very few, or even none at all, Feeder Watch advises. That may be a disappointing bird-watching adventure, but the information is just as important as rare sightings of amazing species. Overreporting prizes and underreporting common visitors would skew the baseline.
In the end, quality-controlled data contains timely insights into the changing fortunes of birds: species abundance and decline, shifting habitats and migration patterns, health and disease.
“After 100 years, the data is getting really deep,” Setterberg said. “As these counts get more popular, the data can tell us a lot about local trends, and big-picture trends, as habitats change.”
Trending down and up
Most of those trends are not good. In 2019, Cornell put out a grave report about birds dying off worldwide at a “staggering” rate, including a reduction of nearly 3 billion birds, or 29 percent overall, since 1970 in North America alone.
Birds whose habitats are shrinking rapidly showed the steepest losses — like grassland birds, which declined more than 50 percent — but common birds of many different habitats also showed significant declines. These include birds that seem plentiful to the casual observer, like sparrows, blackbirds, finches and starlings.
In addition to specific habitat loss, the Cornell report says, a complex mix of factors is driving bird population decline, including insect decline, pesticide use, climate change, forest fires, even an increase in tall buildings. Forests in the American West have seen an overall decline in bird life of between 20 and 30 percent, according to the report.
The news isn’t all grim. Thanks to intensive land management and ecological restoration programs, some wetland birds and waterfowl are on the rise. Banning the pesticide DDT led to the resurgence of the endangered American bald eagle.
“Bird counts (in Ridgefield) are trending upwards for bald eagles,” Setterberg said. “It’s enough to make scientists go, ‘Oh, wow!’ ”