The longest running citizen science project, the Christmas Bird Count hosted by the Audubon Society, launches today in thousands of locations world-wide. Since 1900 birders of all ages have participated in the census established to count birds of all species during the Christmas season instead of hunting them for sport. Data collected during the counting event is used to assess the health of the bird population, and helps guide conservation efforts.
From December 14 to January 5 thousands of volunteers brave the wintery weather to watch for and record bird sightings during the 117th annual Christmas Bird Count at pre-determined sites across the country. Survey sites are managed by a volunteer count compiler who provides information about possible routes participants can survey, and collects data at the end of the counting period.
Each bird count site is called a circle and consists of a 15-mile diameter circle. Last year 2,505 circles were surveyed. Participants will count birds at designated spots in each location, or travel a predetermined route. If your home is within the circle boundaries you may also be able to count birds visiting your backyard during a one-day period instead of exploring a larger area.
To volunteer visit www.audubon.org, then click on the menu item Christmas Bird Count at the top right of the page. Do a search on the map for a bird count site nearest you. Contact the count compiler to find out if you can participate in this year’s bird count, and if a special count day has been for the circle you’re interested in.
On the designated day put your bird watching skills to the test and spot and record as many birds as possible in your circle along with other participants. You can use the Audubon Bird Guide App on your smart phone to aid identifying birds during your survey. The app includes 821 species of birds with in-depth descriptions and even audio of bird sounds so you can benefit from learning on the go.
If you miss the Christmas Bird Count, there is another alternative in February called the Great Backyard Bird Count. Visit www.birdcount.org to get more details. Last year over 18 million birds were counted world-wide. The smartphone app eBird is used in conjunction with the event to help compile data. The app can be used by birders year-round to make their own journal of bird sightings. To help identify birds before entering you can use the app Merlin Bird ID from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The Merlin app helps ID birds by characteristics and with a photo.
Whether you count birds or not this year, you can still support these beautiful animals by making your backyard bird friendly. For example, provide water year-round with a bird bath so birds can benefit from drinking and bathing in a safe area. Discard old birdseed, and prevent mold growth by keeping fresh seeds sealed in an air-tight container away from heat. And, clean out nest boxes in the fall, then in early spring to allow for different types of seasonal birds to nest and roost overnight.
Bird watching takes place outdoors, so be sure to dress everyone in comfortable attire with appropriate walking shoes. Sunscreen, water, and snacks are worth bringing along, especially if you plan to be outside for a long time. Binoculars are also helpful but not required. They’re a useful tool to spot small birds, and to generally help you focus on a particular area when conducting observations.
Plan your bird watching walk for the early morning or late afternoon, around your neighborhood or a local park. Areas with open water, like wetland habitats, will provide additional water birds to observe. While on your walk keep quiet, move slowly, and try to blend with the surrounding. You may want to sit for a while, listen, and tune in to the natural world. Make observations about the bird you’ve found including its size, color, length of legs, shape of beak, and noises or bird songs. Look for the bird you saw in your guide and check it off your list. Some birders keep a Life List of all the birds they’ve ever seen.
Another way to identify birds is by listening to their call or song. Recognizing and differentiating bird songs takes practice, but can be done by using mnemonics – phrases to help us memorize something. For example, to recognize the call of the Killdeer plover listen for birds singing the phrase, “Kill-dee, kill-dee, kill-dee”. The American Crow can be heard singing, “Caw, caw, caw”, while an American Robin will sing, “Cheerily, cheer-up, cheerily.” The Rose-breasted Grosbeak’s call sounds like it says, “Chink”, and the Red-winged Blackbirds says, “Tseer, tseer.”