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Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count Stronger Than Ever

2019-12-24

It has been 120 years since New York bird expert Frank Chapman launched his Christmas Bird Count. His goal was to change the long Christmas tradition of hunting birds. So, instead of shooting them, he and his followers simply counted them.

Today, the yearly count is stronger and more important than ever.

Geoff LeBaron has led this massive community science effort of The National Audubon Society for more than 30 years. He said founder Frank Chapman “realized that [people] were over-harvesting birds and something had to be done.”

The National Audubon Society is a conservation organization that puts special effort into bird protection.

“People get very passionate about the Christmas Bird Count,″ LeBaron told The Associated Press. “It’s fun and it’s a tradition,” he added, noting how important it is “to the creatures we love.”

Recent studies have found that bird populations are shrinking and facing threats of extinction from climate change, forest loss and other causes. The Christmas count has become one of the most useful sources of information because of its size and its long history.

The first Christmas Bird Count was done by just 27 people at 25 places around North America. The 2018 count had more than 79,000 observers in 2,615 places. Most are in the United States and Canada. But the number of places in Latin America and the Caribbean is growing, LeBaron says.

It’s a party

Bird count parties are held in every state in the United States and in every part of Canada, as well as in many parts of Mexico and Colombia. Volunteer bird watchers gather at these parties.

FILE - In this Dec. 19, 2008, file photo, Jeannie Elias, left, Mary Spencer, and Alison Wagner look for birds in Fayston, Vt., for Christmas Bird Count. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 19, 2008, file photo, Jeannie Elias, left, Mary Spencer, and Alison Wagner look for birds in Fayston, Vt., for Christmas Bird Count. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

Brooke Bateman is a senior climate scientist at Audubon. She attends bird count parties each year and brings her daughter along.

“It’s such a great tradition and is making a huge contribution to science,” Bateman said.

This year’s bird count started on December 14 and continues through January 5, 2020. Anyone can volunteer by going on the ChristmasBirdCount.org website. Volunteers do not need to be members of Audubon.

The website shows all active bird count groups. This makes it easy for people to find nearby groups that are still accepting volunteers.

If a person’s home is within a bird count area, they can even do a count in their own backyard.

Although the project’s name includes Christmas, few of the bird count parties actually happen on December 25. It is even possible to be a part of more than one bird count party.

“There’s a guy in Iowa who tries to do 23 counts each year, but most people don’t do that,” says LeBaron.

How it works

The counting method was decided in the 1950s. And counting is run by many knowledgeable bird-count party organizers and information gatherers.

Each party tries to document all the birds seen or heard within a 24-kilometer circle in one day — from midnight to midnight. The count can happen at any point during the three-week period.

LeBaron notes that 24 kilometers is a large area. So, he suggests as many people as possible gather to cover it. Audubon wants to be sure not to count birds more than once. So, each person in a bird count party should be given one part of the big circle, he says.

Over the decades, volunteers have found changes to bird populations. Most species have moved north and inland, as early winter temperatures have gotten warmer, LeBaron says.

He says, “Even if you go out and don’t see any birds at all, that’s valuable information.”

I’m Alice Bryant.

Katherine Roth reported this story for The Associated Press. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

conservation – n. the protection of animals, plants, and natural resources

passionate – adj. having, showing, or expressing strong emotions or beliefs

extinction – n. the state that results when something (such as a plant or animal species) has died out completely

contribution – n. something that is given to help a person, a cause or something else

backyard – n. an area of grass behind someone's house