In the 1800’s, Americans would celebrate the Christmas holiday by heading to the fields and woods with their guns, killing as many birds as they possibly could in order to “win” the competition with their friends and neighbors.
You can imagine the toll the hunting took on local avian populations; as a result, in 1900 an Audubon officer by the name of Frank M. Chapman suggested that instead of killing all these birds, “Christmas Bird Census” enthusiasts should merely count all the species they encountered. During the first census, 27 individuals tallied 90 species in 25 different locations.
What began in 1900 is now the longest example of a citizen science project in the world! Today, interested birders can sign up for different counts through the Audubon website, and what started with 27 counters has grown to over 76,000 in the United States, Canada, and other countries around the world!
Because of all the participants, a ridiculously high number of species was tallied in the 2015-2016 count: “4,531,408 in the United States; 3,723,228 in Canada; and 623,435 in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Pacific Islands. Diversity-wise, 2,607 species were tallied—roughly one-quarter of the world’s known avifauna.”
The results of Christmas Bird Count surveys are used by scientists and researchers across the globe. Because so much information has been gathered over a long period of time, the data has been used to summarize population, range, diversity, and density changes. The immense number of papers (over 200!) published using the data can be found here.
In my travels, I have heard many people lament that there seems to be little they can do in the face of climate change and other human-led alterations of the environment as a whole. However, individuals can contribute to the Christmas Bird Count and other citizen science projects, helping researchers document the extent of said changes and devise strategies for the future.
The counts this year will begin on December 14th and run until January 5th. Find a location near you!