Conservation Column: History of the National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count and How the Data Is Used Today

How the Count Started

Prior to the turn of the 20th century, hunters engaged in a holiday tradition known as the Christmas Side Hunt. They would choose sides and go afield with their guns. Whichever team brought in the biggest pile of feathered (and furred) quarry won.

Conservation awareness was just in its beginning stages then, as many observers and scientists were becoming concerned about declining bird populations. Beginning on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, an early officer in the then-nascent Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition—a Christmas Bird Census that would count birds during the holidays rather than hunt them. So began the Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Thanks to the inspiration of Chapman and the enthusiasm of 27 dedicated birders, 25 Christmas Bird Counts were held that day. Locations ranged from Toronto, Ontario, to Pacific Grove, California, with most counts in or near the population centers of northeastern North America. The combined tally of the original 27 Christmas Bird Counters came to around 90 species. 

In the present, from December 14 through January 5 each year, tens of thousands of volunteers throughout the Americas brave snow, wind, or rain to take part in the effort. 

How the CBC Helps Protect Species 
The data collected by observers over the past century allow Audubon researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys, such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent’s bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years. The long-term perspective is vital for conservationists. It informs strategies to protect birds and their habitat, and helps identify environmental issues with implications for people as well.

What Conservationists Have Learned through CBC Data
Audubon’s 2014 Climate Change Report is a comprehensive, first-of-its kind study that predicts how climate change could affect the ranges of 588 North American birds. Of the 588 North American bird species Audubon studied, more than half are likely to be in trouble. Our models indicate that 314 species will lose more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has included Audubon’s climate change work from CBC data as one of 26 indicators of climate change in their 2012 report.

In 2009 CBC data were instrumental in the collaborative report by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - State of the Birds 2009. 

In 2007, CBC data were instrumental in the development of Audubon’s Common Birds in Decline Report, which revealed that some of America’s most beloved and familiar birds have taken a nosedive over the past forty years.

Eugene Christmas Bird Count (ECBC) History
The first ECBC was held in 1912. On Christmas Day, Harriet Thomson took to the field by herself and saw 15 species and reported 377 individual birds to the National Audubon Society (NAS). There are no records of another ECBC until 1942, when Ruth Hopson went out with 10 others and saw 44 species and 1,840 individual birds. While there was no recorded ECBC in 1943, there has been an ECBC every year since 1944. This year will be the 75th ECBC.

In addition to Harriet and Ruth, ECBC organizers, officially called Compilers, have included Ben Pruitt, Lawrence Daggett, Margaret Markley, Don Payne, Irene Flynn, Allan Larrabee, Larry McQueen, Dan Gleason, Chip Jobanck, Steve Gordon, Herb Wisner and currently Dick Lamster. Participants on our Count have ranged from one in 1912 to 255 in 2012. For the past ten years we have been in the top ten counts, with the most participants out of the over 2,500 CBCs in the world. 

The number of observed species has steadily risen from the 15 seen in 1912 to the record 140 species seen in 2005, plus two more during Count Week. With lots of people out looking in the field, plus upwards of 100 Home Counters, we now expect to see 130 species or more every year. After seeing 377 total individual birds in 1912, the numbers have risen steadily to a record 129,874 in 2000. The total number of species seen at least once in the past 74 years is 214.

Help us continue to make history by participating in the 75th ECBC on January 1, 2017. Call Dick Lamster at 541.343.8664 or email at maeveanddick@q.com for more information.

(Taken from the NAS web site with local information added by Dick Lamster)