The holidays are here again, and that means it’s time for egg nog, Santa Claus…and the Christmas Bird Count! If you just said “The what now?” then allow us to introduce you to a time-honoured tradition.
The Christmas Bird Count—whose name could not be more self-explanatory—began in 1900. It’s North America’s longest-running wildlife census and citizen science project. Last year, more than 14,000 Canadians took part in over 450 one-day counts, spotting 2.4 million of our feathered friends (more than half of them in Ontario).
This year’s count runs from December 14 to January 5. Across the country, naturalist organizations and birding clubs have organized free events where volunteers of all ages can connect with nature experts to observe, identify, and learn about resident and migratory birds. (If you have kids in your flock, look for special CBC4Kids events.) Each count occurs within a circle 24 kilometres in diameter. These areas stay the same each year, so that scientists can monitor resident and migratory bird populations over time.
“The Christmas Bird Count is a great opportunity to get outside during the winter months, observe nature, and learn about the diversity of bird species in your own backyard,” says Emma Horrigan, Conservation Projects and Education Manager at Ontario Nature. “In addition, the counts contribute to data about bird populations. They help conservation biologists and naturalists assess trends, better understand bird distribution across North America, and make important decisions.”
Last year, keen-eyed volunteers in Ontario glimpsed red-shouldered hawks, bald eagles, red-throated loons, snow buntings, and golden-crowned kinglets, among many other species. Rare sightings included a boreal owl, a white-crowned sparrow, and a brown thrasher. Niagara Falls saw a record-setting 410 American goldfinches.
Horrigan herself just participated in a count in Toronto, and she saw a rare black-and-white warbler and a pair of peregrine falcons. “You never know,” she says. “Every year we see something unexpected and different. I also look forward to seeing the more common species, including winter waterfowl like mergansers, buffleheads, shovelers, and long-tailed ducks, along the Toronto lakeshore.”
If you don’t know your swifts from your swallows, don’t worry—fledgling birders are welcome. “Each year, there are a lot of new faces. If you’re interested in birdwatching or learning more about nature, the Christmas Bird Count is a great place to start,” says Horrigan. Her pro tips: check the weather and dress warmly (long johns are a good idea), and on extra-cold days, pack a Thermos of hot chocolate. Bring your binoculars and a bird field guide, and download a free app called eBird (iOS and Android) to keep track of what you see.
“The Christmas Bird Count is a really celebrated example of citizen science. It shows how local community efforts can have a significant impact on conservation, just by getting people outside and observing species in their area,” says Horrigan. “Those sightings can go a long way.”
To find a Christmas Bird Count near you, check the map at Bird Studies Canada. If you live in Ontario—which will have at least 80 events this year—visit Ontario Nature. To explore results and trends, visit the Audubon Society.