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Christmas Bird Count – A Local and National Audubon Event

By Tom Dennis

We take a break from the regular bird species articles this week to share about the Annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC).  This long-running event is sponsored locally by Blue Water Audubon and we’ll take a look at its history and importance, some special birds we hope to see this year, and the ways you can get involved.

The CBC started in the early years of The Audubon Society when ornithologist and society officer, Frank Chapman, proposed a new holiday tradition, a “Christmas Bird Census” rather than the then current tradition of hunting them with guns.  So the CBC was born on Christmas Day in 1900 and the first year recorded 25 counts with 27 dedicated birders in locations ranging from Toronto, Ontario to Pacific Grove, California with most counts near populated areas in northeastern North America.


2017 was a CBC record year, having 2,585 – 15 mile-wide count circles that included approximately 5% of the coverage area in the United States, Canada, Latin America, the Caribbean, Bermuda, and Pacific Islands.  The 118th annual count tallied over 59 million birds, representing 2,673 different species.  The data from the CBC is widely used, with over 200 peer reviewed articles having resulted from its analysis.  It is also used to make important decisions regarding bird conservation, habitat restoration, and habitat protection.  Last year’s data indicated disturbing population declines in populations of Northern Bobwhite Quail, American Kestrels, our smallest falcon, and Loggerhead Shrikes, a predatory songbird.  The Environmental Protection Agency uses the data as one of 26 indicators to register Climate Change effects.  You can visit the website and find annual summaries of the CBC from 1901 to present.

Blue Water Audubon has participated in the CBC every year since 1955.  The one-day count will be held locally this year on Sunday, December 16. You are welcome to participate in one of several ways.  Janet Fox, a local Audubon member leads the charge in coordinating volunteers and reporting data.  Volunteers are assigned locations and use standardized count sheets.  It is recommended that counters attend the December 3, Blue Water Audubon meeting held at The Point, 5085 Lakeshore Rd., Fort Gratiot, MI at 6:45 PM.  You may also visit the Blue Water Audubon Facebook site for information.  We also need feeder counters and specific count guidelines will be posted on-line.  Most importantly, we need people to keep their bird feeders well-stocked and advise us where in the count circle they are located.

The event is a fun and rewarding experience with many participants meeting for lunch to share the morning experiences and highlights.  In past years we have had many exciting sightings including Pileated Woodpeckers one year in the Port Huron State Game Area (Beard’s Hills).  The birds cooperated for a photoshoot and little did we know that this was a rare sighting that required photo or audio documentation.  We have counted during blizzards as well as beautiful sunny days and the worse the weather the more memorable.  One year our son was on leave from Army duty in the Middle East and he thoroughly enjoyed the winter distraction from his work.  We identify and count all species found and teamwork between expert, intermediate, and novice birders works best for good results.  If you enjoy birds and learning more about them, this is a great event for you!

This should be an exciting count year as the poor, natural seed crop in Canada is expected to result in bird irruptions, a condition whereby bird species shift their wintering grounds in response to food availability.  We are already seeing local sighting reports of Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, Crossbills, and Common Redpolls and we will likely see Snowy Owls, Purple Finches, and Pine Grosbeaks.

Christmas Bird Count is a great way to get involved in helping birds and our environment.  Bird health is a well-known indicator of environmental health and what is good for birds is good for all of creation!

Tom Dennis is a free-lance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, and naturalist.


Tom Dennis is a resident of Fort Gratiot where he and Laurie Melms Dennis, his wife of 45 years, tend to their bird and butterfly friendly gardens. He is a speaker and free-lance writer, passionate birder, advanced master gardener, creation scientist, and naturalist, with degrees from Michigan State University in Zoology and Biology. Tom is an active member of Blue Water Audubon Society, Master Gardeners of St. Clair County, Port Huron Civic Theater, Ross Bible Church, Tapestry Garden Club, Blueways of St. Clair, and is a steward of the Blue Water Riverwalk with Friends of the St. Clair River.

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