It’s almost that time of year again — for religious observances, holiday celebrations and family get-togethers. But for birders, it’s also time for the annual Christmas bird counts, a tradition that has been carried out since the first one was held on Christmas Day in 1900. Prior to that, it had been a custom to have an annual Christmas bird hunt, in which teams competed to see which could shoot the most birds. There was a growing knowledge, however, that some bird species were significantly decreasing in numbers. Under the guidance of Frank Chapman, an American ornithologist and officer of the Audubon Society, the event was changed from a hunt to a census, in an effort to prevent further decline of bird populations.
Today, the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is the longest running citizen-science initiative in North America. Although the observers are volunteers, their data contributes to scientific knowledge and the long-term health of various species. Changes in weather patterns are often reflected in birds’ habits, which is important to recognize at this time.
The first count was held in 25 places, mostly in the northeastern U.S., but also at a couple of Canadian sites in New Brunswick and Toronto. The total count was 89 species and about 18,500 individual birds. Contrast this with more recent statistics. The 2015 Audubon summary shows a total of 2,505 counts in the Western Hemisphere — 1,902 in the United States, 471 in Canada, and 132 in Latin America.
Manitoba statistics for December/January last year show counts were held at 21 sites. A total of 81 species were observed, with some groups quite successful despite cold conditions (Glenboro-Spruce Woods count tallied 38 species; Brandon had 47). Waterfowl were scarce on most counts, but some songbirds were tallied in large numbers (over 3,000 Bohemian waxwings and more than 8,000 house sparrows).
CBC results are also a way to watch the spread of species new to Manitoba, such as the Eurasian collared dove, now seen across the south. Last year this dove numbered about 40 on four separate counts (including a surprising 23 in Glenboro). Another unusual species was the red-bellied woodpecker (seven tallied over five counts). Birds unusual in winter included a spotted towhee in Winnipeg, a Harris’s sparrow in Brandon and a varied thrush at Minnedosa.
Information for all of Canada can be found on the Audubon website and then clicking on “Historical.” To find one specific site click on “Results by Count,” country and province, and you can find statistics for Manitoba sites.
Bird counts are no longer conducted exactly on Christmas Day. They are now held any day from December 14 to January 5. Each is conducted within a “count circle” having a diameter of 24 km (15 miles) that stays the same from year to year. Usually several volunteers count in each circle, often 10 or more, forming small groups to cover more territory. Some participants prefer to count birds at their feeders, instead of following pre-arranged routes. Of course, the count results cannot be totally accurate since the birds may fly from one spot to another, but procedures are outlined to keep them as correct as possible. Large flocks will have an estimated number, and birds counted twice will be offset by those that are missed. Overall, the counts provide a rough guide as to bird numbers in winter and changes over the years.
Previously, those taking part in the CBC paid a $5 fee, but for some counts participation is now free. Some groups make the day a social occasion and conclude with a potluck supper when everyone shares their sightings.
If you’d like to participate in the 118th count this year go to the Audubon site given above and then contact last year’s compiler, or call Nature Manitoba at 204-943-9029 for dates and contacts and see the Nature Manitoba website which also has reports from last year.
At the time of writing, some dates had not been finalized, but the Nature Manitoba website will list more when information is received. Another website to locate count dates is Bird Studies Canada and click on “Find a Count Near You.” Those already decided include: Oak Hammock Dec. 16; Delta Marsh/Portage Plains Dec. 28; Glenboro-Spruce Woods Dec. 16; Gimli Dec. 15; Riding Mountain National Park Dec. 19; and Brandon Dec. 17.
Maybe this Christmas season you’ll be part of this useful, citizen-science survey, and thank goodness the bird “hunt” is no longer a shooting contest!