All about Those Bird Counts

Last week, Gloria Baldi (long time active board member of our Kittitas Audubon Society) and I were discussing North American bird counts and dates for upcoming local counts. As the family-friendly Thanksgiving Bird Count was about to happen, Gloria thought I might be interested in an article about its possible demise.

Our conversation got me thinking about the four birdcounts about which we most often hear, their importance, and how little many of us know about them. Start with the just-completed Thanksgiving Bird Count, then look to the Christmas Bird Count. In mid-February the Great Backyard Bird Count happens, and in spring, across North America, the Breeding Bird Survey will happen. At a variety of levels, these counts involve huge numbers of birders, and give us insight into environmental conditions over time.

The article Gloria sent me was from the North Coast Journal, published in northern California’s Humboldt County. Kimberly Wear’s piece, “Bye Bye, Bird Count” focused on John Hewston, a retired prof from Humboldt State University and the coordinator, for the past 25 years, of the Thanksgiving Bird Counts.

The Thanksgiving count was started by professor Ernest Edward of Sweet Briar College in Virginia in 1966. Hewston took over tracking the counts in 1992. The count was designed to be simple; those who want to play get their forms online from a site publicized each year, pick a 15-foot diameter circle (often easily watched from inside the house) and spend an hour counting the birds that appear in the circle. The results of the nearly 500 counts are recorded and supplied to all participants, as well as to various scientists and organizations which monitor bird populations and trends – the 50 years of records are highly valued.

Hewston was drawn to birding nearly 90 years ago. “In those days,” he was quoted as saying. “that wasn’t anything anyone did but little old ladies in tennis shoes.” His lifelong love of birding led him to create newsletters and surveys – and the Thanksgiving Bird Count. He is now retiring (at the age of 93) from his tallying and tracking duties. The future of “his” count is unknown at this time.

The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was proposed by ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, an officer of the fledgling Audubon Society. Observers and serious scientists were alarmed about declining bird populations and the counting started on Christmas Day 1900. This year is the 119th year of the count – the longest-running citizen science activity in North America.

Starting in November of each year, birders wanting to in participate in the CBC can sign up and join in through the Audubon website. Then, on selected days between December 14 and January fifth, thousands and thousands of volunteers across the continent will face whatever the weather offers to count birds in a 15 mile diameter “count circle.” Generally, at least 10 volunteers count every bird they see in each circle, following specific routes or watching feeders. [Note that the Ellensburg, Washington, CBC will happen on Saturday, 15 Dec. Gloria Baldi, 509-933-1558, will have more information. The Cle Elum count will be on Monday, 17 Dec. with details available from Michael Hobbs at]

CBC data collected over the almost-119 years allow Audubon researchers, biologists, wildlife agencies and other stakeholders to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. With other surveys, the century-plus of data provides a picture of our continent’s bird populations in time and space. That long look is critical to understanding birds and the habitat on which we all depend.

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) started in 1998. This citizen science project happens annually in mid February. GBBC is a four-day event involving the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. Birdwatchers all across the globe are asked to count and report the birds in their home areas. Data is returned online and compiled for use in scientific research – and is generally available in near real-time. A number of other birdwatch events are now coordinated with the GBBC, and, under the watchful eye of expert birders, the solid data is widely informing awareness of population and habitat changes of common birds.

The North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), undertaken during nesting periods, is a joint project of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the Canadian Wildlife Service. The data from this survey, launched in 1966, forms much of the basis for the range maps found in field guides.

The survey counts along approximately 3700 active routes in the United States and Canada. Thousands of experienced birders participate each year, providing information used to produce continental-scale relative abundance maps for bird species observed, and some insight into population changes.

Bird counts are important. While the Thanksgiving Bird Count may be drawing to a close, the other counts will continue, and there are plenty of ways for the growing numbers of birders to help with similar ongoing efforts. After all, Hewston noted, “It’s a cool thing to do now, which it didn’t used to be.”

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

Trackback from your site.

Leave a comment