Why do we count birds at, or around, Christmas? It does seem a bit odd to count them when most of our birds have gone south.
Before the turn of the 20th century, different parties of hunters would compete on Christmas Day to see which group could come back with the most (dead) bundles of feathers and fur at the end of the day. It was considered to be great fun.
One member of the newly formed Audubon Society was very concerned about this especially since bird numbers seemed to be declining.
Instead, he decided to organize a census of birds rather than hunt them. So, on Christmas Day 1900, 27 enthusiastic birders in 25 different counts (including one in Toronto) set out to count birds.
Since then, the number of counts has exploded, and counts take place all over North, Central and South America over a three-week period before and after Christmas.
What do we do? Well, regardless of the weather (and we have had everything from rain to -32C weather), we head out as early as we can and drive, walk, ski or snowshoe around our assigned area watching and listening for birds – any birds – big or small.
There is a sense of excitement and hope that our party might be the one to find the rarest or most unusual species. Perhaps we will get more species on our list than any other party. Maybe we find a flock so big that we can only guess at the numbers.
Over the years we learn where the likely spots to find the birds are located. Sometimes it means walking through cow poo in a dairy barn, walking alongside a stretch of open water, skiing ‘off piste’ to stir up some ptarmigan, screeching to a halt in the car because some bird just flew into the bushes, or just checking every possible feeder or hiding spot in town.
Pre-COVID, we would all gather at someone’s home for potluck supper and to share our favourite stories of the day. Inevitably birders would groan about “not seeing anything,” but then delight in being the star of the day by having seen the rarest bird. Ultimately, everyone enjoys their day of fresh air, walking off the enormous Christmas feasts, and are happy to have counted lots of birds of the usual variety of species.
The counts are all collated, together with temperature, amount of snow, cloud, rain, open or frozen water, as well as available natural foods and ultimately sent to the Audubon Society. Smithers’ count is notable for having a large number of participants every year.
The data collected over the years is used to census the health of bird populations and help guide their conservation status.
Audubon produced a “Climate Change Report” in 2014, which indicated severe declines in 314 species of birds. The count’s data is also used as a climate change indicator by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Christmas Bird Data is also used to compile the “The State of the Birds” reports and Audubon’s “Common Birds in Decline Report” both revealing severe declines in numbers of birds over the past 40 years.