December 2019

Vol. 47, No. 6

Musings from the Blind Birder: Christmas Bird Counts: Citizen Science at its Best

Martha Steele

Birding in December is virtually synonymous with the Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The origin of CBCs rests with Frank Chapman, who suggested in 1900 that birds be counted on Christmas Day instead of shot as was done in a holiday sporting tradition popular at that time. Thus, the first CBC was held in 1900 in 25 locations in the United States and Canada, with Massachusetts sites including Belmont, Fresh Pond in Cambridge, the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, and Mystic Pond in Winchester (Greater Akron Audubon Society 2018). Twenty-seven participants tallied a total of around 90 species (National Audubon Society 2018). This contrasts with the most recently available count summary, 2017–2018, in which there were 2,585 counts across the Americas, the Caribbean, and Pacific Islands with nearly 77,000 participants and over 2,600 species (LeBaron 2018). It is perhaps the longest and arguably greatest example of citizen science in the world, with people of all walks of life contributing data that provide information on bird population trends and guide conservation efforts.

Such lofty goals and aspirations may be far from your mind when you are standing in early morning hours in bitter cold or raw, wet conditions to count your beloved Canada Geese, European Starlings, or House Sparrows. December 14 to January 5, the official count period, is, after all, likely to be chilly in New England. No matter how warmly you may dress, or how many layers you take off and on as you get into and out of a warm car while covering as much territory as you can, you will eventually be so chilled as to swear at this ridiculous exercise.

But you push on and you return, year after year, to participate in this massive data gathering effort, recognizing that counting the more mundane birds is just as important as finding the rare ones. Those of you who participate in the Concord, Massachusetts count may be surprised to learn that the number of participants in this count (274, with 116 reporting from feeders) was the eighth highest in the 2017–2018 CBC season. In the New England region, only the Northampton, Massachusetts (191), Block Island, Rhode Island (140), and Greater Boston (122) counts had more than 100 participants (LeBaron 2018).

Of course, the number of participants does not predict the number of species. In 2017–2018, the highest species total in New England was for the Newport County-Westport (RI/MA) count, with 138 total species tallied (LeBaron 2018). On the flip side, consider the challenging Island Pond count in the far northeastern corner of Vermont. The 2017–2018 Island Pond CBC had just ten participants, 684 individual birds, and 32 species. The 32 species represented a nearly 50 percent increase from the prior year's tally of 23 species. But among those 32 species were Black-backed Woodpecker, Canada Jay, and Red and White-winged crossbills, all highly desirable winter birds.

Sightings from the 1900 Christmas Bird Census. Bird-Lore, January-February 1901.

Statistics aside, CBCs engender great camaraderie among those who participate as well as many friendly competitions, particularly within regions or between neighboring counts. And let us not forget the countdown, where all participants in any given count are invited to share food and drink at the end of a long day to tally the species and individual totals reported by observers assigned to specific areas within the count circle.

The Greater Boston count was not started until 1973, when Bob Stymeist staked the center of the CBC-required 15-mile diameter circle at Fresh Pond in Cambridge. However, after only one year and realizing that centering the circle at Fresh Pond excluded Boston Harbor and its islands, Bob moved the center to Somerville the following year where it has remained ever since.

Every year, we hold our breath and closely monitor weather forecasts as the first count weekend approaches. Scores of birders are out scouting their areas, trying to find particular species that may still hang around long enough to be counted for the CBC. Hearts sink if a count gets ambushed by several inches of snow or a prolonged cold snap that may freeze freshwater ponds just days before the count, likely resulting in bird departures or mortality affecting species diversity and count for the period.

When the day arrives, many of us simply monitor our feeders; in 2017–2018, for example, nearly 14 percent of all CBC participants were reporting birds from feeders (LeBaron 2018). Some of us rise in the pre-dawn hours to visit spots good for owls, trying not to attract local police curious about our peering through binoculars in residential neighborhoods. Owling is just the start of a mad dash of a day as these birders move as quickly as possible to as many locations as possible counting birds. Still others bird more casually, preferring to take breakfast and lunch breaks to warm up and slow their pace. Whatever the style, the end result is the same: count and record every bird you see.

Over the 46 years of the Greater Boston count, a total of 232 species have been tallied, an astonishing total for a wintry and urban locale in North America. Many rarities have turned up on the Boston count list, such as Smith's Longspur, Henslow's Sparrow, Varied Thrush, Boreal Owl, MacGillivray's Warbler, Painted Bunting, and Swainson's Hawk. In some cases, these rarities are surprise finds on the day of the count, while in other cases, rarities are discovered before the count and then closely monitored until the local CBC, when someone is specifically assigned to make sure the bird is located and counted. Ah yes, competition indeed. Still, the discovery of rarities seems bittersweet, as the normal range of many of these individuals lies in warmer climes south and west of New England. Thus, the excitement of such finds is tempered by the reality that some of our visitors may not survive the harsh conditions they find themselves in.

Casual perusal of the CBC data may sometimes suggest seemingly mysterious changes in bird populations that have simple explanations. For example, some researcher might note a precipitous decline in European Starling populations in the Greater Boston CBC in the 2000s after many years of counts in the hundreds of thousands (over 200,000 in 1982). European Starling numbers plunged to a few thousand in the new century (3,042 individuals in 2017). What happened to the starlings in the Greater Boston count? Well, those of you who lived through the nightmare of the Big Dig might still recall the elevated Interstate 93 highway running through downtown Boston before the new underground tunnel and Zakim Bridge opened in 2003. That elevated highway was the site of a massive starling roost in the winter, and an early morning visit to the roost basically took care of the starling count for the entire day. With the elevated highway demolished following completion of the underground tunnel, the starling roost was no longer, and Boston count numbers plummeted.

There are sometimes other non-avian explanations for what may appear to be a jump or drop in individuals counted in a particular CBC from one year to the next. For example, birders persistent in pishing may record much higher numbers than birders who do not. I recall two experienced birding friends participating in a count that they had never participated in before. Their considerable expertise at pishing out birds lurking in the many thickets in this count area produced large numbers of multiple sparrow species, Eastern Towhees, Carolina Wrens, Northern Cardinals, Northern Mockingbirds, and other thicket-loving birds. At the countdown that evening, one by one, counters reported one or two individuals of a species common in thickets until my birding friends chimed in with 60, 100, or whatever, causing gasps and turning heads across the room. The lesson here, of course, is pish, birders, pish, and they shall come.

One species highlighted in the most recent summary of CBC data by the National Audubon Society was the Common Raven (LeBaron 2018). The Common Raven had essentially disappeared in the central and eastern parts of North America outside of the Appalachians by the mid-1900s. However, more recently, the species has made a comeback and has colonized southward along the eastern coast. To illustrate this point, data from the Greater Boston CBC show that the first Common Raven was reported in 1984 and then again in 2008. But in 2011 and 2012, three Common Ravens were reported for each year. Since 2014, they have been reported each year in the Greater Boston count, with high counts in 2015 and 2017 (11 individuals each) and 2018 (eight individuals).

At its core, CBCs generate voluminous data for researchers and conservationists to analyze for bird population trends. On a smaller scale, it is not difficult to see obvious trends for long-running counts. For example, early years in the Greater Boston count saw much higher numbers of Ring-necked Pheasant (211 individuals during the 80th count, and now sometimes missed entirely for the count), while more recent years have seen much higher numbers of Red-bellied Woodpeckers (one individual in 1990 and 101 individuals in 2015) and Wild Turkey (one in 1996 and 144 in 2016), but for most of us birders, the Christmas Bird Count is a highlight of our birding year. We reconnect with many birding friends, share our triumphs and disappointments of the day, complain or marvel at the weather conditions encountered, cheer at the best birds during countdowns, enjoy food and drinks often of the homemade variety, and feel a quiet satisfaction of doing our small part to help bird conservation efforts. The Christmas Bird Count tradition started so long ago by Frank Chapman is indeed one that all birders can be proud of.

Martha Steele, a former editor of Bird Observer, has been progressively losing vision due to retinitis pigmentosa and is legally blind. Thanks to a cochlear implant, she is now learning to identify birds from their songs and calls. Martha lives with her husband, Bob Stymeist, in Arlington. Martha can be reached at>


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