Dan and I signed up to help with our local Christmas Bird Count this winter. We’ve both done CBCs before, but this was our first in our new home area. We signed up a bit late, so didn’t get our first choice area, the “corner” of the circle that includes the top of our road (unfortunately our house is just outside the circle boundaries). We were assigned a section north of town, an area that we’d only been through once or twice, so it was a new experience for us. This area isn’t chock full of birders (just like the general population, there tend to be more around urban centres) so there weren’t many teams covering the full area, and we had a large expanse of ground to cover. We could easily have spent the whole day out birding the region, but with the big snowstorm that was due to roll in this afternoon, we only got a few hours in in the morning before having to pack things up. What we did do was mostly by car, some 50 km (31 miles) worth of road, though we did hike about 3.5 km (2.2 miles) in small segments here and there where the habitat looked promising.
Christmas Bird Counts are an annual, volunteer-driven bird monitoring project that occurs continent-wide during the month surrounding Christmas. They have their roots in the old 19th century pasttime of sport hunting. During that period hunters would compete in an annual Christmas tradition to see how many birds they could kill in a day (very few of these were likely ever actually used or eaten, and this sort of competitive and senseless massacre was a large part of what drove the Passenger Pigeon extinct). Watching birds and allowing them to live instead of shooting them for sport or science was just coming into its own at the end of the 1800s. An ornithologist named Frank Chapman proposed that perhaps instead of competing to see how many birds they could kill in a day, they could see how many birds they could count in a day. I don’t know whether Chapman’s motivations were out of sympathy toward the birds or concern over long-term depletion of populations, but either way they’ve inspired something big.
The first counts took place in 1900. There were 25 circles that year, and just 27 participants to count the birds in them. Toronto, Ontario, was one of those first 25, along with one in New Brunswick, the only Canadian representatives. All but 3 of the original counts were in the northeast. Those 27 people found some 18,000 birds of 90 species during the counts. The Christmas Bird Count has grown exponentially since then. Last year almost 60,000 people joined in to participate in 2100 counts across the Americas. They counted nearly 58 million individuals of 2267 species of birds. Competitions these days are less about giant numbers and more about rareties, those birds that are out of place for the time of year and location. The person who pulls up a slowpoke warbler on their snowy count here in southern Ontario gets a clap on the back. Even if a participant wasn’t the one to find the special bird themselves, there’s some thrill in knowing that these birds are hanging around in your area.
Of course, there is science behind all this fun. The purpose of the counts these days is to act as a monitoring tool for wintering species. Especially in the north the CBC can be a valuable tool to track species that tend not to be easily accessible at other times of year because they breed further north. Even resident species benefit from the monitoring, though, and in combination with Breeding Bird Surveys and Migration Monitoring the CBC adds a valuable component to monitoring efforts.
We saw tracks of Wild Turkey, but not the bird that made them.
I’m using that word a lot, “monitoring” – what does it mean? There are two types of scientific data collection that helps birds and other animals. The first is direct research, where people go into the animal’s habitat with the goal of answering a particular question. The question may be as simple as “how many young does this animal have” or “where do they build their nest” or “who does the majority of the parental duties”, or it may be as complex as “what effect do military training exercises have on the breeding success of birds using military bases to nest?” or “how often do extra-marital copulations occur and what percentage of a female’s offspring are fathered by someone other than her mate?” All of these questions come to bear when deciding on management practices or designating natural areas for protection, or for intervening to help save a species in decline.
We also saw lots of deer, perhaps 7 or 8, but they don’t count.
And that’s where monitoring comes in. How do we know a species is in decline without data to show its numbers dropping? The three primary monitoring surveys are complemented by an array of smaller, often local, projects and efforts. Project Feederwatch, the Marsh Monitoring Survey, and local breeding bird atlases are other monitoring projects that provide valuable data to this end. Monitoring projects are ongoing and rarely have the showy results that funding agencies like to see come of their money, so it’s often difficult to get money for these sorts of projects. And yet, they’re every bit as important as the one-off research projects for providing valuable data. While research projects tend to be carried out by academic institutions or employees of bird observatories, most monitoring projects are primarily volunteer-driven. Fortunately, as the CBC shows, there are no shortage of people willing to participate.
Each count circle is 15 miles (24.1 km) in diameter, which equals about 177 square miles (452 sq km). That’s a lot of ground to cover by foot! I’m not sure why they chose to make the circles so large when the CBC was first established, particularly since they didn’t have many participants back then to scour the area. The segment that Dan and I covered was just a fraction of that, maybe 80 sq km (31 sq mi), but it was still a huge chunk of land for just two people, and hence why we drove most of it in the three and a half hours we had before the snow started falling. We got out of the car a few times, usually dropping one person off at point A and then driving half a kilometer up the road to point B, where the second person would park the car and walk up ahead; person 1 would reach the car and then drive ahead to pick up person 2 from wherever they’d managed to reach. It was bitter cold out, -12 C (5 F) before the windchill, and I think something like -17 C (1.4 F) with it. About ten minutes outside was about all we could manage before we’d have to climb back into the car and thaw out our cheeks and toes. We brought Raven with us, rather than leaving her at home stuck in her too-small crate (I’ve been looking for a larger used one online, since they’re not cheap, but every one I’ve contacted so far has already been sold or hasn’t responded). She’d walk down the road with person 2, on her leash, when we stopped to do a leapfrog. She enjoyed the outing, though she was happy to get in the car again after each walk outside!
Tomorrow: what we counted.