A flock of red-winged blackbirds in Brigham City, Utah.

Carter Williams, KSL.com, File

What is the annual Christmas Bird Count? And how you can help this year

By Carter Williams, KSL.com | Posted - Dec. 7, 2020 at 7:02 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — For over 100 years, conservationists and everyday citizen scientists have gone out into the wilderness to track birds.

The Christmas Bird Count dates back to 1900 at a time when the existence of numerous bird species in the U.S. were threatened as a result of overhunting. Ornithologist Frank Chapman carried out the first count beginning on Christmas Day that year as a way to provide an idea of how many living birds there were at that time.

It's billed as an annual census of birds in the U.S. and elsewhere across the globe.

This year's count runs from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5, 2021.

Utah's Audubon chapters have teamed up with state and federal wildlife officials to tally birds living all across northern parts of the state.

How the Christmas Bird Count came to be

The history of birds in the U.S. is complicated, especially before wildlife regulations were created. It wasn't until the Lacey Act of 1900, which barred hunters from selling items from poached animals, that the U.S. had any real uniform policy aimed to protect wildlife.

By the time that law passed, many birds were threatened in the 1800s as a result of out-of-control hunting. Hats with ornamental feathers became all the rage and hunting for this fashion helped wipe out a handful of documented species and threatened many other species by the turn of the 20th century, the National Audubon Society pointed out.

There was also a popular Christmas holiday tradition in the late 1800s to partake in a "Christmas side hunt," the Sonoma Ecology Center wrote. The activity was essentially a competition to bag the most birds one came across in the countryside. This also resulted in a heavy loss of birds in the U.S.

In an effort to protect the creatures, Chapman adjusted the Christmas Day tradition and made it more about counting birds instead of killing them. A total of 27 people participated in the first count.

The bird count predates the forming of the Audubon Society, but Chapman's count is now a tradition that's been carried on for over a century through the help of the organization. It's continued even after legislation like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 were crafted, which have helped bird species thrive.

It's the longest-running wildlife census composed through the help of community science. All species of birds are counted as a part of the program, from the sparrows dancing around your backyard to the majestic bald eagles that make Utah their winter home.

"Any Christmas count is just having normal volunteers — people who are interested at looking at birds and identifying birds to help us count birds they find in and around their neighborhoods," said Ian Batterman, field trip coordinator for Great Salt Lake Audubon and coordinator for the Salt Lake Christmas Bird Count.

"It helps us monitor the populations of birds that spend the winter in North America and South America," he added. "It's a very, very important population study of bird health and populations in the Americas."

The organization has an interactive website that shows counts and trends of different bird species in North America — from bird species that are disappearing to ones that are thriving.

Why the bird count still matters

These annual counts help pinpoint overall tendencies with birds, which can help figure out other trends happening in the environment. For example, the Audubon Society data is used for state and federal reports — and helped the organization make projections about how climate change would affect bird breeding ranges.

The participation in bird counting has also gone up since 1900. Over 81,000 observers participated across North America, Latin America and the Pacific Islands in the 2019-2020 count, which was a record, according to the organization.

Geoff LeBaron, the director of the Christmas Bird Count for the National Audubon Society, released the results of that study Monday. He said the observers counted about 42.7 million birds in total, which was nearly 6 million birds fewer than the 2018-2019 count.

"One cannot help but wonder what's going on and what may be causing it," LeBaron wrote. "We plan to do a future analysis of long-term CBC results, looking at species groups, numbers of birds, and the total effort each season, to look into where the largest declines seem to be happening."

Researchers and citizen scientists alike have reported declining bird populations in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere. For instance, a study published in Science Magazine last year found about a 3 billion bird decline in North America over a span of the last 50 years.

Batterman explained the results can vary year-to-year based on different reasons, such as weather conditions the day of a count. Some bird species have thrived thanks in part to human feeding while some bird species have declined as much as 50% in vulnerable habitats, he said.

"This is what the main reason of the bird count is — to monitor the health of bird populations because the health of the bird populations throughout the United States and throughout the world really helps with ecosystem health and the health of humanity, and the rest of the animals," he said.

How you can help count birds this year

You don't have to be an advanced birder to participate in the count. In fact, you don't even have to leave your own home to help out in some cases.

There will be a handful of counts happening in the state beginning next week. In the Salt Lake City case, volunteers will attempt to count birds within a 15-mile radius centered at the Salt Lake Temple on Dec. 19. That means counting birds 7.5 miles north, south, east and west of the structure.

Due to COVID-19, volunteers will be spread out to ensure they are socially distant, Batterman said. He hopes residents within the 15-mile radius would be willing to count birds from their backyards that day and report them as a part of the count.

Here is Utah schedule for the 121st annual Christmas Day Count:

  • Dec. 14: Grand Staircase-Escalante. Anyone who wants to participate can contact Terry Tolbert at terry_tolbert@blm.gov or 435-826-5499.
  • Dec. 16: Boulder, Garfield County. Meeting at Anasazi State Park Visitors Center (460 Highway 12). Anyone who wants to participate can call 435-826-5607.
  • Dec. 16: Zion National Park. Anyone who wants to participate can contact Jason Pietrzak at jason_pietrzak@nps.gov.
  • Dec. 18: Cedar City. Anyone who wants to participate can contact Keith Day at keithday@utah.gov.
  • Dec. 18: Kanab. Meeting at BLM Office (669 S. Highway 89 A) for a "short precount presentation." Anyone who wants to participate can contact Lisa Church at 435-644-1273.
  • Dec. 19: Salt Lake City. Anyone who wants to participate — including from their homes — can contact Ian Batterman at Imbatterman@gmail.com.
  • Dec. 19: Provo. Anyone who wants to participate can contact Bryan Shirley at bt_shirley@hotmail.com or 801-722-9346 ahead of Dec. 19 assignment.
  • Dec. 19: Logan. Anyone who wants to participate can contact Hilary Shughart at hilary.shughart@gmail.com or 435-213-3668.
  • Dec. 19: St. George. Anyone who wants to participate can contact Ken Hinton at kenahinton@hotmail.com or 435-772-1019, or Bryan Dixon at bdixon@xmission.com.
  • Dec. 19: Ouray National Wildlife Refuge. Bird counting will take place from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the refuge in Uintah County. Anyone who wants to participate can contact Tonya Kieffer-Selby at tonyakieffer@utah.gov.
  • Dec. 26: Ogden Valley, including Huntsville and Pineview Reservoir. Anyone who wants to participate can contact Mike Hearell at 801-529-8693.
  • Dec. 26: Silver Reef, Washington County. Anyone who wants to participate can contact Marshall Topham at marshalltopham@gmail.com or 435-632-7841.
  • Dec. 29: Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge. Anyone who wants to participate can contact Keeli Marvel at keeli.marvel@gmail.com or Jonathan Barth at Jonathan_barth@fws.gov.
  • Jan. 2, 2021: Payson. Anyone who wants to participate can contact Bryan Shirley at 801-722-9346 or bt_shirley@hotmail.com ahead of Jan. 2 for their assignment.

More information about this year's counts, including recommended protocols amid the COVID-19 pandemic, can be found here. More information about the program can be found here.

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is one of the state and federal agencies assisting this year. In a statement, DWR public outreach manager Tonya Kieffer-Selby explained that the data collected locally helps provide "valuable information to conservation efforts worldwide."

Said Kieffer-Selby: "We're using that data to assess the overall health of bird populations and to implement any conservation actions that may be needed for species survival."

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