Christmas Bird Count: Learn about birds, explore the county |

Christmas Bird Count: Learn about birds, explore the county

It seems hard for us to understand nowadays, but up until the beginning of the 20th century, many people commonly took part in a holiday tradition known as the Christmas “Side Hunt.”

Imagine teams of participants heading out into the field, guns in hand. The side that came back with the biggest pile of dead birds at the end of the day was declared the winner.

Naturally, this did not set well with the early pioneers of the modern conservation movement. They proposed an alternative to this indiscriminate slaughter of wildlife – count them instead of shooting them.

The first Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was organized in 1900 by Frank Chapman, an early officer of the Audubon Society. Twenty-seven birders held 25 counts that day, mostly in the northeastern U.S. They tallied a combined total of 90 species.

Well, look at baby now! In 2001, 56,129 counters took part in 1,880 CBCs in the Western Hemisphere. Three counts in California and two in Texas counted over 200 species each, the highest total (233) coming from Mad Island Marsh, Texas.

A CBC in Monteverde, Costa Rica, recorded 376 species. Our local counts usually tally over 100 species each. One count in Alaska sometimes records only one species – Common Raven.

The counting protocol has become standardized through the years. Each count area is a circle of 15 miles in diameter. The circles are divided into several sub-areas. One or more parties of observers count each sub-area.

An attempt is made to normalize the data by taking into account the number of observers, the weather, the number of hours spent walking, driving, boating, etc.

Why do people give up the warmth of a holiday fire to tromp around in the rain, snow, or cold to count birds?

The primary objective of the CBC is to monitor the status and distribution of bird populations across the Western Hemisphere.

The CBC is the longest running “citizen science” project on record. The data are used, along with data from other surveys, such as the Breeding Bird Survey, to give us a good picture of how the hemisphere’s bird populations have changed in time and space over the last 100 years.

Many counters simply enjoy being outdoors with people who have similar interests. Taking part in a CBC is a great way to improve one’s birding skills – it is amazing how much you can learn in one day of sharing with other birders.

A CBC is a fun way to see other parts of the county, and what birds and habitats are found there. A bit of friendly competition adds to the fun, though this aspect is not played up much in our local counts.

Some of the count circles vie for the most species recorded in the state or country during the CBC.

I personally like to see if my team can beat previous years’ totals of species, or can be the one to see those special species that were not recorded in any previous count or in any other area.

Anyone can take part in a CBC. There are jobs for all levels of experience. A Web site listing California CBC’s is There are several counts in our area – the Grass Valley count is Jan. 4. For information, contact Rudy Darling, 272-6504,

The Auburn count will be Dec. 14. The contact is Deren Ross, 885-9740,

Rudy Darling is a member of the Sierra Foothills Audubon Society. You can write him in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.

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