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The National Audubon Society and its annual Christmas Bird Count is a time-honored tradition. The iconic American non-profit is dedicated to the conservation and protection of birds and their eggs in their natural habitats. They offer free membership to all who volunteer their time and efforts in perpetuating their objectives.
Their aim is to prevent killing of wild birds that are not consumed as food. They want to prevent the destruction of any kind of avian eggs. In particular, they abhor the use of bird feathers to embellish articles of clothing. These objectives first appeared in Forest and Stream magazine on Feb. 25, 1886.
To this end, the National Audubon Society organizes an annual Christmas Bird Count to monitor the numbers and the general health of birds in the wild. This month marks 115 years of this event and runs from Dec.14, 2014 to Jan. 5, 2015. From two dozen volunteers at the first CBC, the number in 2014 totaled 71,659. The original 25 circles grew to 2408 last year.
The National Audubon Society’s CBC is the longest running census of its kind. This unique citizen science project originated on Christmas Day of 1900 and has been conducted continuously since. It is the brainchild of ornithologist Frank Chapman, an organizer of the society. The concept was a humane and environmentally friendly undertaking; an alternative to the then-popular “side hunt” – a Christmas-time competition where bird-hunters vied with each other in order to kill the maximum numbers of birds. The counts are normally sponsored by local nature or bird clubs.
Enthusiasts from the United States and Canada start at dawn. Thousands of volunteers fan out, contributing to the conservation efforts of the society. The data they collect aids in assessing the health of the bird population and mapping future conservation projects.
Carrying binoculars, bird guides and checklists, countless bird lovers, amateur and professional, experienced or not, participate in the CBC each year. This meticulously orchestrated event separates birders into groups of 15-mile-wide circles spanning both land and water areas in urban, rural and forest settings. Those who live within their circles contribute by providing data on the winged creatures that visit the birdfeeders in their own back yards. Each circle is named for a local landmark, and is headed by a count compiler who reports back to the National Audubon Society.
Since the main event is too rigorous to include children, certain chapters of the society, such as the Connolly Ranch and Napa-Solano Audubon Society, organize half-day events for kids aged eight to 16 in an attempt to encourage birdwatching, conservation and future citizen scientists. They hold an orientation called Binocular Boot Camp for the children, and much fun is had by all.
There is no cost to participate. Funding relies exclusively on charitable donations. Expenses include providing support to volunteers and compilers during CBC. Funding is also required for the technology needed to maintain and manage the historic and current data used by conservationists and researchers.
Over the 115 years the National Audubon Society has run the Christmas Bird Count, the information collected by birdwatchers has become an indispensable means of gauging the numbers and health of countless bird species in the Americas. The CBC database is one of only two used by conservation biologists and ornithologists.
The data collected by the National Audubon Society is critical for scientific analysis of fluctuations, distributions and migrations of bird populations. Often this information throws up alarming statistics. Some common birds, like the Eastern Meadowlark and Northern Bobwhites, have declined more than 70 percent since 1967. Other species provide more encouraging bird tallies.
Declines in bird populations occur mostly due to habitat destruction by urban housing and commercial developments. Deforestation is another reason. Climate change is a significant contributory factor.
The National Audubon Society and their annual Christmas Bird Count provide an invaluable service. Their work and bird tallies help to mitigate the threats and propagate the survival of these stunning denizens of the wild.
By Bina Joseph
Photo by Brian Roy Rosen – Flickr License