This post was originally published in November 2017. Information has been updated to reflect the current Christmas Bird Count.
by Rachelle Roake, Conservation Science Coordinator
This year marks the 120th annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC), an annual winter census of birds across the Western hemisphere. This survey is one of the two largest long-term data sets used to estimate bird population trends (the other data set is the Breeding Bird Survey). More generally, the CBC is an event of camaraderie. The CBC is a chance for birders (and non-birders) to come together in the doldrums of winter in search of every titmouse and snowy owl. Many groups uphold traditions of pre-dawn breakfasts and spirited luncheons where teams converge to compare lists in good-natured competition. Many Michigan birders are loyal participants, but signing up can seem daunting for first-timers. We’ve gathered basic information and compiled answers to frequently asked questions to get new volunteers ready for their first CBC!
What is it?
The CBC is an annual census of birds across the US, Canada, Central, and South America. The survey gathers data on the number and distribution of wintering species.
Why should I participate?
You’ll be contributing to local and international bird conservation, all while reconnecting with old friends or meeting new ones.
I’m not an expert birder – is that okay?
The CBC welcomes birders of all ages and experience levels. Even if you know nothing about birds, if you can see movement or hear a bird making noise you can be an excellent spotter. The CBC also appreciates non-birders who are willing to drive back-seat birders or keep a tally of observations.
How much does it cost?
In the past, there was a small participant fee but now the survey is completely free; however, donations are accepted by the National Audubon Society to maintain the CBC database. If you carpool with others during your survey, you may consider chipping in for gas money.
Where is it?
Surveys take place within established “circles,” each with a 15-mile diameter. While the entire state isn’t covered, Michigan has more than 70 CBC circles.
When is it?
The CBC takes place between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. However, each circle will select one, 24-hour period on one calendar day to survey. Many surveys take place during the weekend to attract the most participants.
What can I expect on my first CBC day?
Some hard-core birders begin early to search for owls pre-dawn, but most groups meet in the early morning at a café, diner, or other breakfast-bearing location to assign teams and locations. Each team will survey a designated area within the circle. Teams may walk trails, check bird feeders, or observe from the vehicle as long as they are within the designated circle. Some teams may rally at a favorite lunch hotspot, while others gather for a potluck dinner to compile data and wrap up the event.
How do I get involved?
You can find a map of CBC circles and leader (or “compiler”) contact information on the National Audubon website. Locate the nearest CBC circle and contact the official compiler to sign up. You can also contact your local chapter to see if they are hosting a CBC event.
How can I prepare?
While no preparation is necessary, you may practice your winter bird ID skills or scout survey areas ahead of time to locate potential hotspots. Pack a supply bag the night before. Some good items to pack include binoculars, scopes, cameras, gloves, scarves, hats, extra layers, hand-warmers, tissues, water, snacks, and a thermos of your favorite hot beverage (packed the day of!).
Is it fun?
American Kestrel photo by Josh Haas