Curtis Smalling is director of Land Bird Conservation at Audubon North Carolina. Here he gives some facts about the longest running animal census on the planet – the Christmas Bird Count. Questions and answers have been edited.
Q. What is the Christmas Bird Count?
A. The Christmas Bird Count began 115 years ago in response to a holiday tradition known as the Christmas Side Hunt, in which folks would go kill as many birds and other critters as they could in one day. Many early conservationists believed this wasteful practice needed to stop, so they created the Christmas Bird Count as a fun way to enjoy nature by counting birds rather than hunting them. The CBC uses volunteers to count of all of the birds seen or heard in a predetermined 15-mile diameter circle. Volunteers are assigned routes within that circle by the count’s compiler, who organizes the groups, assigns the routes and then compiles the data and submits it to the National Audubon Society. The first CBC involved just 27 participants; last year, more than 70,000 people participated.
Q. What are some of the most interesting findings of past counts?
A. The count has been going on for over a century and has given us a great snapshot of how our birds are faring. Our data have been used to document the alarming decline in some species, such as the loss of the Bewick’s wren in the Eastern United States. It has also shown the dramatic increase in other species or colonization by new species, such as the rapid rise of Eurasian collared doves. Analysis of a hundred years of CBC data has shown that over a third of our species are migrating farther northward in response to climate change. That also helped inform a report released by the Audubon Society this year predicting dire consequences of climate change over the next 80 years.
Q. What are your hopes for this year?
A. We hope that lots of counters get out there and make this one of our best years ever. It is important to keep track of our birds, how they are doing and where they are appearing. The count helps us to make more informed conservation choices, to monitor our progress toward that conservation and also importantly to engage a broad base of the public in the work and get them excited about birds and their preservation.
Q. What is citizen science? How can citizens become involved in this project?
A. Citizen Science is any scientific effort that uses nonprofessional but passionate scientists to help further a larger science project’s goals. Folks need a basic knowledge of birds or at least a willingness to learn and help other experienced counters, plus a desire to collect accurate data and report it to their compiler. The best way to get involved is to visit the CBC website at http://birds.audubon.org/get-involved-christmas-bird-count-find-count-near-you. The 115th Christmas Bird Count began Dec. 14 and continues through Jan. 5.