Thousands of bird watchers participated in the Audubon Society’s nationwide Christmas Bird Count the past few weeks. The count isn’t officially tallied yet, but so far, they’ve counted nearly 6 million birds.
The annual Christmas Bird Count is a citizen science activity in which beginners are paired with experienced bird watchers to count as many birds as can be found in designated areas.
“It’s done every year, same time period. The idea is you get a very consistent count across the entire United States and in other extended areas,” said Ron Young, Christmas Bird Count team leader. “The idea is you can see what weather changes are happening, how populations are changing, how environments are changing and how it impacts the birds.”
Is there a trick to spotting birds in cold weather?
“You’ve just got to be patient because in the cold weather the small species, the sparrows, chickadees, they’ll stay down without sunshine and warmth. We just have to move slow, look in the bushes and try to get a good count,” Young said.
“All you need to do is grab a pair of binoculars and just go outside. There are birds everywhere,” said Kelli Neumann, programs director at the Sunriver Nature Center. “That’s what’s really neat about this hobby is you can go anywhere. You can do it anytime. The whole family can get involved. We have a feeder here at the Nature Center and that’s a good place to check out birds. We also have bird walks available guided by professional birders.”
The Christmas Bird Count is a prime example of how everyday observations by first-time volunteers and experts alike can make a big difference in understanding how the climate is changing.
“I’ve been doing this since I was 16, almost 44 years. I’ve done a lot of these over the years,” Young said. “They are a lot of fun. Everybody gets into it.”
We caught up with Nancy Albert of Sunriver who was participating in her first bird count.
“It was exciting and interesting,” she said. “Being new to the area, I was not familiar with a lot of the bird varieties. Traveling around this lake this morning, I was able to learn more about the birds that live here. Now I’ll know a little more when I start looking out my kitchen window and what I’m seeing.”
The Audubon Society has been staging Christmas Bird Counts for more than 120 years.
Long-term trends in the data show dramatic changes.
More and more bird watchers are seeing half as many birds as were counted just 35 years ago.
Ron Young started participating in bird counts when he lived in Eastern Oregon.
“Where I grew up, I saw a lot of changes in bird populations over the years. You go back 20-30 years ago the chukar count was incredibly high. It’s gone down and now it’s coming back up a little bit. The pheasant population is way down. But we are seeing more bald eagles than we’ve seen in the last 10 years. That’s fun seeing them come back the way they have.”
On this day, the bird watchers spotted the Nature Center’s resident trumpeter swans, mallard ducks and Canada geese.
In the meadows and thickets around Lake Aspen, chickadees, sparrows, ravens, ducks, hawks and bald eagles were seen.
“It’s really fun to do a walk with the birders because the more you get into birding, the more you start seeing,” Neumann said. “You might first notice the robins and stuff. But when you are out with a birder, they’ll point out there’s a robin. There’s a titmouse. There’s a sparrow. You start seeing more that’s around you. It’s a really fun way to see and enjoy nature.”
Christmas Bird Count data has prompted changes in how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies manage natural resources to protect places birds need to thrive now, and in a climate-disrupted future.
After participating in an organized bird count, Nancy Albert said she planned to buy some bird books so she can identify birds she sees on her own.
“I have binoculars. I forgot to bring them but next year I will be wiser and bring them with me.”
The next time you go for a nature walk or explore your neighborhood, record the wildlife you see. Your observations can help protect the environment.