The Christmas Bird Count

by Jim Rapp

For Delmarva's birders, the holiday season is not complete without participating in at least one Christmas Bird Count.

19 different counts take place on Delmarva, from Cape Charles to Crisfield and Middletown to Milford. Birders spend a full day in the field counting every bird they see or hear -- not just the species, but the individual birds they encounter. How this annual tradition got started and what it means to protecting bird populations today is an important chapter in the American wildlife conservation story.

At the turn of the last century, conservation as we know it today was in its infancy. In 1900, there was no National Park Service, there was no National Wildlife Refuge System, and very few laws protecting wildlife. There were no large national organizations working to save wild animals and wild places.

What did exist was a growing concern among hunters, anglers and bird watchers that American wildlife was in peril. Decades of unregulated hunting and habitat destruction in North America had caused some animals to become critically endangered. A few species, such as the Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet, were too late to benefit from new policies and practices designed to save wildlife. These beautiful birds became extinct just a few years into the 20th century.

The alarming loss of American wildlife motivated many to take action. In 1900, ornithologist Dr. Frank Chapman was a Curator at the American Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and an early officer in the new Audubon Society. Dr. Chapman was aware of the holiday tradition at that time known as the Christmas "Side Hunt." Hunters would choose sides, and head into the field with their guns. The winner of the side hunt was the hunter who brought back the biggest pile of dead animals.

Dr. Chapman proposed a new holiday tradition to help birds. Beginning on Christmas Day in 1900, Dr. Chapman launched a "Christmas Bird Census" that would count birds during the holidays rather than hunt them.

27 of his enthusiastic birding peers in the forming Audubon Society accepted his challenge, and so began the Christmas Bird Count. 25 Christmas Bird Counts were held that day from Toronto, Ontario to Pacific Grove, California. Those original 27 Christmas Bird Counters tallied around 90 species on all the counts combined, and started the longest-running citizen science project in the world.

For more than a century, the data compiled by volunteer birders has been reviewed by scientists and conservation biologists interested in the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. Christmas Bird Count data paints a picture of how the continent's bird populations have changed over the past hundred years. This perspective helps inform strategies for protecting birds and their habitat.

2014 marked the 115th year of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, and broke records with more than 72,000 observers and more than 63 million birds tallied. This year's 116th Audubon Christmas Bird Count has begun and will once again gather essential data for shaping our understanding of birds and how we can help them.

Here's how it works on Delmarva: each November, birders interested in participating can sign up and join through their local bird club or through the Audubon website. Counts are usually held from December 14 through January 5. You can find a link with registration information for all Delmarva Christmas Counts on our website at

Each count takes place in an established 15-mile wide diameter circle, usually around a well-known Delmarva town. Volunteer birders follow specified routes through the 15-mile circle, counting every bird they see or hear from just before dawn to just after sunset. This is not just a species tally -- every single bird is counted on a Christmas Bird Count, giving an indication of the total number of birds in the 15-mile circle on that day.

Some may fairly question a birder's ability to count every bird they encounter in a day. For some birds, this is a pretty easy task. It's not difficult to count the number of Canada Geese flying slowly by in V-formation, or a single Great Horned Owl hooting from a distant perch. It gets a little trickier when you are trying to count thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds taking flight at sunrise, or tens of thousands of Snow Geese lifting from a farm field. In these instances, you do the very best you can to estimate the number.

Throughout the day, birders drive their designated route, counting birds from the car, or on foot hiking on public lands or private properties that have provided access. Some Delmarva Christmas Counts use boats to tally waterfowl and sea birds offshore. If your home is within the 15-mile boundary of a Christmas Bird Count circle, you can stay at home and count the birds that visit your feeder on count day.

Each count is organized by a compiler, who collects the data at the end of the day from the volunteer counters. All participating volunteers must register first with the count compiler, so that coverage can be maximized within the 15-mile circle. Anyone can participate in a Christmas Bird Count regardless of experience. If you are a beginning birder, you will be able to join a group that includes at least one experienced birder.

Each Christmas Bird Count ends with a Tally Rally, which may be held at a local restaurant or at a potluck in someone's home. After all parties have arrived and had a bite to eat, the compiler organizes the volunteers by section or route covered. When the compiler shouts out the species name, such as "Mourning Dove," a spokesperson for each section shouts back the number of birds seen that day.

The Tally Rally gets really exciting at the end of the list of common winter species, when the compiler asks for any rare birds sighted that day. You never know what may be found on Delmarva during a Christmas Bird Count with that many experienced eyes on patrol!

The Tally Rally gets a little somber when it's time to report the birds that have largely disappeared from Delmarva. 20 years ago, when the compiler shouted out "Northern Bobwhite," the final tally would be in the dozens. Today, the response for Northern Bobwhite, Delmarva's only quail, is usually just a few or, sometimes, zero birds sighted.

On the other hand, the Christmas Bird Count is also a time to reflect on the successful recovery of once-endangered species. 20 years ago, when the compiler shouted out "Bald Eagle," the reply may have been zero to just a few birds counted. Today, Bald Eagle tallies for some Delmarva Christmas Counts may exceed 100 individuals.

This gets to the heart of why Christmas Bird Counts are important, and are still going strong in their 116th year. Bird Count data has informed reports about bird populations published by the Audubon Society, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Each year, we learn more about the long-term trends of bird populations, and scientists and conservationists can help develop strategies to protect birds from the effects of habitat loss, climate change, and invasive species.

If you want to spend at least one day of this holiday season exploring Delmarva's outdoors, learning about birds and contributing to their conservation, participate in one of our Christmas Bird Counts. You'll be carrying on one of the oldest American conservation traditions while enjoying nature and meeting new friends.

Visit this link to register: