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Christmas Bird Count History: 10 Facts to know

Christmas Bird Count Graphic
The Christmas Bird Count is the oldest Citizen Science program and wildlife census.

Post #56 of 100 days of blogging

The Christmas Bird Count is the longest running citizen science initiative. Data from the observations is recorded by volunteers but has contributed to important scientific understanding about bird population changes for over a century.

Did you Know?

#1. The first ever Christmas Bird Census took place in 1900. It was promoted by Frank M. Chapman, the founder of Bird Lore magazine (predecessor of Audubon Magazine) as an alternative to the traditional Christmas “side hunt”. This holiday activity meant groups of people would go out in to the woods on Christmas Day, choose “sides” to team up with then, in Chapman’s words, “kill everything in fur or feathers that crossed their path – if they could.” The winner of course was the “side” with the largest pile of dead birds.

#2. Chapman’s first bird-census attracted 27 people across the United States and Canada, who together counted a total of 90 species between them. Here is the list of species. The first count included two locations In Canada, Toronto, Ontario and Scotch Lake, York County, New Brunswick.

#3. Today the count takes place across the western hemisphere, and the 116th  (December 2015) Audubon count summary lists a record setting 2505 count circles. Of those, 1,902 took place in the United States, 471 in Canada (including the French territory of St.-Pierre et Miquelon), and 132 in Latin America, the Caribbean, Bermuda, and the Pacific Islands. Interestingly, one of the new counts was initiated by the indigenous people of Guna Yala, Pananma.

#4. The first ever count in the Montreal area took place near Chambly, Qc. on December 22, 1929. While the skies were clear, the temperature only 0 F and one imagines it made the six hours  spent observing feel even longer! Three participants, including Lewis Terril, covered 10 miles on foot, trudging through woods with two feet of snow from 10 AM to 4:20 PM. The report later published in Bird Lore magazine mentions Merganser, Ruffed Grouse, Hairy Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Starling, Pine Grosbeak, Redpoll, Snow Bunting, White-Breasted Nuthatch, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Black-capped Chickadee as the species observed. To read the exact numbers for each specie click to read the original report in Bird Lore magazine.

#5. According to A Bird in the Bush, the official history book of Bird Protection Quebec, the fact that the first bird census only occurred in the Montreal area in 1929 was at the time attributed to few bird species believed to be around during the winter. However, it has now been established that the number of species observed in general during the early years of the counts across north America were much lower than they are today. It isn’t that there were fewer birds and/or harsher winters. Instead, fewer observers, the lack of very many skilled observers and lack of good field optics all played a roll. As the number of volunteer observers increased, not to mention the availability of better binoculars, so did the number of species observed. In addition, more observers also means better coverage of the count circles. Participation does matter! 

#6. Counts are conducted from December 14 through January 5th within a 24-km diameter circle that stays the same from year to year. They are organized, usually as group efforts, at the local level, often by a birding club or naturalist organization. Beginning with the 101st CBC, and after an analysis of the date ranges within the cumulative CBC database, the dates were adjusted to make observations consistent. See the Bird Studies Canada website for more information about counts and participation in Canada or visit the BPQ Christmas Bird Count page.

#7. The Montreal CBC circle is is centered at the intersection of Sherbrooke Street West and Westminster Avenue in Montreal West. It has taken place every year since 1929. This year will mark the 81st annual count.

#8. The first Hudson Count took place in the 1940’s. The count circle is centered at the Cooper Airport in St-Lazare and has a 24 km diameter. It covers cities like Vaudreuil, Dorion, Les Cèdres, Coteau-du-Lac, St-Clet, Hudson and a small part of Oka.

#9. According to the Audubon website, the use of playback and attractant noises have always been permitted on the CBC, where allowed by law, since the birds being monitored are in the non-breeding season. The use of playback equipment should be “very judicious” and make sure not to negatively affect bird behavior.

#10. Both the Hudson and Montreal counts offer participation as a feeder watcher on the actual CBC day. There is also the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) organized by Bird Studies Canada February 17-20. BPQ will be holding a feeder day at the Morgan Arboretum on February 18th to coincide with GBBC. Details will be available on our events page soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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