Vail Daily column: Counting the Christmas birds |

Vail Daily column: Counting the Christmas birds

Betsy Holter
Curious Nature
Vail, CO Colorado

When I first heard of Christmas Bird Count, I envisioned bird lovers sitting in the dark and cold, waiting for midnight on Dec. 24 and then lifting their binoculars to begin a 24-hour period of non-stop birding. The day ended, I imagined, with them falling into bed, cold, exhausted and hungry – having given up presents, eggnog and turkey, as well as the good will of their families. But I had the Christmas Bird Count confused with the Big Day, a self-designated 24-hour period in which a birder attempts to log a personal best in number of different birds seen and secretly hopes to shatter the record of someone else. Though the Christmas Bird Count can bring out the same competitive drive that lurks below the mild-mannered surface of the Big Day counter, the count serves the noble purpose of citizen science and brings birdwatchers together in their favorite activity and for later bonhomie as they tally up their results. And it doesn’t involve tramping around in the cold for 24 hours.

Christmas Bird Counts are organized by compilers, who select a geographic circle 15 miles in diameter, divvy it up among their volunteers and pick of a 24-hour period sometime between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5 in which to count. Hours spent counting and numbers of people recording provide the basis for the comparisons from year to year within the same circle. The tallies include number of species seen and total numbers of birds of each kind counted. Compilers report their totals back to the Audubon CBC and the data is used to spot long-term trends in winter bird populations in North America.

The counters are all volunteers, as they were when ornithologist Frank Chapman organized the first Christmas Bird Count in 1900 as a counter to the traditional Christmas day “side hunt.” In that latter event, a household’s holiday guests would choose up sides, sling their guns over their shoulders, and spend Christmas day competing to see which team could bring home a larger pile of dead birds. The first Christmas Bird Count involved only 27 people, but it stretched from Toronto, Ontario to Pacific Grove, Calif. Eighty-nine species and approximately 18,500 individual birds made the first Christmas Bird Count list. Unlike the side hunt, the tradition hung on and grew. The data from the 112th Christmas Bird Count in 2011-12 came from 63,227 observers in 2,248 separate counting areas in the U.S., Canada, Latin America, the Caribbean and several Pacific islands and included 2,298 species and 65 million birds.

Because creating lists of birds can bring competitive drives to the surface, some Christmas Bird Counts are organized with military precision to maximize the opportunities to find unusual birds as well as to count as many birds as possible within a given circle. In addition, personal quests drive some people to participate in as many counts as possible in the two-week time frame.

But you need not be an experienced birder or hiker to participate in a Christmas Bird Count. Birders are typically delighted to share their passion with newbies. Organizers of the Christmas Bird Counts pair inexperienced people with those who’ve spent a lot of time behind the binoculars. Each circle is divided into territories and many are drivable. Clothing appropriate for a day outside, binoculars, water and food are the only things you need, though a bird identification and guide and notebook would be helpful. The Christmas Bird Count is also a great opportunity to share the fun of bird watching with children and to develop a new holiday tradition. And who knows? You could be introducing the next Roger Tory Peterson or Ken Kaufman to the world of birds.

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How do you find a Christmas Bird Count? The National Audubon society maintains a list of compilers and active circles on its website at For locals, the third annual Eagle Christmas Bird Count will be on Jan. 5. Participants meet at 8 a.m. at the Eagle Chamber of Commerce parking lot, head off to count, and then convene for a pot luck meal at 2 p.m. to compile their data.

Contact Jill Stange at 970-827-5165 or to sign up.

Betsy Holter is a volunteer at Walking Mountains Science Center.

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