Christmas bird counting replaces traditional bird hunt
by Karen Benson
Jan 01, 2011 | 1338 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Robert Benson photo
Male and female Red-winged Blackbirds swirl above a grassy field at the Welder Wildlife Foundation. Redwings were counted by the thousands during the recent Audubon Christmas Bird Count.
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Did I mention that I am retired? One of the best things about being retired is that I no longer have to get up before dawn in order to be at work by 7:30 a.m. So why, on the morning of Dec. 17, was I up at 4:30 a.m.? And why was I at the Welder Wildlife Foundation Refuge near Sinton at 6:30 a.m.?

The answer has to do with, you guessed it, birds. The annual Welder Wildlife Christmas Bird Count was held at the refuge on Dec. 17, 2010. My husband and I, and 16 other crazy birdwatchers, got up early to spend all day outdoors counting birds. (We did this voluntarily.)

What sort of madness is this? What is a Christmas Bird Count?

Let’s begin at the beginning. Prior to 1900, people often engaged in a holiday tradition known as the Christmas “Side Hunt”. Participants chose sides and went afield with their guns. He who brought in the biggest pile of feathered quarry won.

However, by the late 1800s, some early conservationists were voicing concern over declining bird populations. The National Audubon Society was becoming more active. One of its members, Frank Chapman, an ornithologist, proposed an alternative to the “Side Hunt”. On Christmas Day, 1900, Chapman organized a “Christmas Bird Census” in which birds would be counted rather than hunted. This was the first Christmas Bird Count (abbreviated as CBC). At that first CBC, Chapman and his teams of observers counted birds at 25 sites across North America. Most of the sites were in the northeastern United States, but two locations were in Canada, and one was as far west as Pacific Grove, California. Their efforts at these sites resulted in a total of 89 species.

The tradition of counting rather than killing caught on. This year marks the 111th Christmas Bird Count season. And instead of just 25 locations there are now hundreds. Counts occur in every state of the union, in every province in Canada, and in every Estado in Mexico. There are even counts in South America and the Antarctic!

The counting process has been standardized since that first Christmas Day. The CBC season now runs from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5. A count circle is 15 miles in diameter. All accessible habitats within the circle are surveyed for both numbers of species and numbers of individual birds. And these numbers must be gathered within a single calendar day (from midnight to midnight) within the 23-day season.

A circle 15 miles in diameter is a lot of area for one person to survey. Therefore, interested citizens are recruited to help. Not all are experienced birders, nor do they need to be. All that is required is enthusiasm and the willingness to join in the count process. Every pair of eyes and ears helps.

All the data gathered from a count is submitted to the National Audubon Society’s database and a summary is published for all the North American counts. The summary is in a periodical called “American Birds”. And of course, the database is easily accessible online.

Just surfing through the Audubon Christmas Bird Count data is entertaining. Where are the most species encountered? Coastal Texas counts (such as the Freeport CBC and Corpus Christi CBC) routinely get more than 200 species. What counts get the fewest species? Counts at high latitudes are lucky to get four species. The Nome, Alaska CBC had only one species — Common Raven — on a particularly cold count day!

The Welder Wildlife CBC netted 127 species this year, up from 112 last year. This year, we 18 observers were treated to a nice Common Goldeneye (a rather uncommon duck), the chunky little American Woodcock and a Palm Warbler. Sometimes, huge numbers of a single species occur. We personally saw several thousand Red-Winged Blackbirds at Welder this year.

These data are valuable for researchers, conservation biologists and individuals interested in the long term health of birds and ecosystems. They indicate population trends and declines. As the count locations go global, we are getting an increasingly accurate picture of our world’s health.

Be a part of this big picture. Join in on a Christmas Bird Count. There are still several counts left in the 111th season. The Kingsville CBC will be held on Dec. 31, and the Anzalduas-Bentson State Park is on the 4th of January. Just go to and click on Christmas Bird Counts for contact information. You’ll be glad you did!

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