Nature up close: The Christmas Bird Count

By “Sunday Morning” contributing videographer Judy Lehmberg.

Wait! Stop! Do you hear that? It’s a red-bellied woodpecker! Oh, I hear cedar waxwings, too, and a wood duck! 

The sun isn’t up yet but my friend Stacey is already adding species. As she calls them out, I make check marks on our official list. Since it is early in the morning, birds are just beginning to wake up and call to find their relatives and friends.

As it gets a little brighter we start to see them: a male northern cardinal chasing a female; a dozen American goldfinches searching for seeds along the road edge; a couple of Carolina chickadees hanging from sweetgum balls as they skillfully extract seeds.

We try to listen and look in all directions as things happen quickly this time of day. We don’t want to miss anything. We’re trying see as many birds as possible as we move along a road just north of Interstate 10. It is cold for southeast Texas, 25 degrees, with a little wind making it feel colder. We are bundled up in long underwear, several pairs of socks, lots of layers. We are in for a long day of bird identification and we couldn’t be happier. 

I participated in my first National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count (CBC) in 1975, 75 years after the first one in 1900.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, people held “side hunts” where two groups of hunters went out and killed as many birds as they could. At the end of the day the group with the biggest pile of dead birds won. Frank Chapman, an ornithologist and officer in the newly-formed Audubon Society, organized 25 bird counts in the U.S. and Canada that year. He did this as an alternative to the side hunts, to draw attention to declining bird populations. Armed with binoculars rather than shotguns, 27 individuals participated in that first 1900 bird count. The top count that year was in Pacific Grove, California, with 36 species, while Chapman’s New Jersey group spotted only 18 species. 

This was the 118th year of the CBC. Those 27 participants in 1900 have grown to over 76,000 volunteers last year. The count has spread to much of Canada, Latin America, the Caribbean, Bermuda, and the Pacific Islands. Each group counts birds in a 15-mile-diameter circle. The circles are divided up by group organizers so each area within the circle is only counted one time. The counts can take place on any day between December 14 and January 5. Last year, there were 2,505 circles covered.

The data accumulated from these counts is now online at…

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