Cold and Birdy: The Annual Christmas Bird Count
Updated: Jan 6, 2019
By Jeremy Schwartz
In a few weekends’ time, I’ll be sitting in my car in the predawn chill, waiting for one of the most anticipated traditions of the holiday season to begin.
Well, one of the most anticipated traditions for birders, that is.
This tradition has nothing to do with waiting for Santa Claus, though it does involve making a list and checking it (at least) twice. I’m talking about the annual Christmas Bird Count, an organized citizen-science project that has been going on in the U.S. since the early 1900s.
Every year, between the dates of Dec. 15 and Jan. 5., birders across the U.S. get up God-awful early, braving cold, snow, and ice to count birds from dusk till dawn for one day. The CBC, as it’s often shortened to, is organized at the national level by the Audubon Society, with chapters all over the country leading on-the-ground efforts to collect data on bird populations. The national Audubon Society has a great page dedicated to the history of the CBC with list and count data going all the way back to 1900.
Wait, What’s the CBC?
The premise is simple: you join an organized count group, meet at the prescribed date and place, and count as many bird as you see for the day. This data is then shared with the national Audubon Society data wranglers and made available to researchers across the country. It’s citizen science at a grand scale.
The timing comes from a late 1800s tradition among hunters of holding informal hunting competitions on our around Christmas day. Though conservation as a movement and a science was in its infancy at the time, the tradition inspired ornithologists to count bird species during the Christmas season (instead of blowing them out of the sky) in the interests of tracking bird populations. Since then, millions of birders across the country have participate in thousands of individual local bird counts.
Put simply: the CBC is a chance for birders to get outside with their proverbial kin, braving the cold and savoring the camaraderie to do something their passionate about.
My First CBC
My very patient wife and I first signed up for a CBC in the Seattle area in 2016. I had just gotten seriously into birding that May and was brimming with enthusiasm to spend a day with way more experienced birders. The day was a cold and sometimes wet one, and at points made me think to myself: what am I doing out here when I could be warm at home? Has birding made me go mad?
Then a wave of excitement would pulse through our group as a specific bird species would fly directly over head, or when we spotted a flock of semi-rarities mixed in with their more common cousins. Here we were marveling at spotting a flock of Bohemian Waxwings, an irregular winter visitor to the Pacific Northwest and close relative to the more common Cedar Waxwing.
One of the birders in the group had brought his spotting scope and set it up so we could all get looks at the flock of Bohemians a few hundred yards away in a tree. Though most present had seen Bohemian Waxwings before, this sighting seemed just as exciting as their first time.
It was at these moments that I was most glad I committed to getting up early and joining the cause. My wife and I were proud to be two of 55,000 CBC participants across the country that year.
Enjoying the Birds, and the Birders
This was the first time I’d ever interacted with hard-core birders. Though I added three birds to my life list, and we saw one or two relative rarities, what sticks in my mind most was the enthusiasm. These people were so into this hobby. They were more than fans. They seemed to live birding and the natural world.
I love being out in the natural world on my own, simply enjoying the surroundings and the birds it brings. I love adding new birds to my life list and learning more about them. But what I remember most about that first CBC was the people. Those that so vividly and enthusiastically shared my newfound passion.
There’s nothing quite like being a part of a tradition so steeped in history and significance. Though relatively unheard of among non-birders, the CBC has provided researchers and conservationists reams of data used to protect, conserve, and recover numerous bird populations. I’m proud to offer my eyes and ears this year, and for many years to come.
The national Audubon Society website has a whole page dedicated to finding a CBC near you. Check it out for an interactive map of organized CBCs across the U.S.
If you’re thinking of joining one, I’d recommend you come prepared. I’m not talking about trying to become a bird expert overnight. Any set of eyes, no matter the experience level, is welcome. The majority of expert birders I’ve met are more than happy to share their knowledge with newbies.
I’m instead talking about stuff to bring to make the experience just that much more enjoyable. Here’s a list to get you started:
Snacks and a Packed Lunch
CBCs are run sunup to sundown, so make sure you bring enough food to keep your energy up. The food that has worked the best for me is cheese, crackers, and salami to snack on throughout the day and a couple of old-fashioned PB&J sandwiches for lunch.
A Full Thermos and Water Bottle
When you get a chance to snack, make sure you have something warm to wash it down with. My wife and I are tea people, but coffee is a fine option, too. Even if you skip the warm liquid route, water is essential. I doubt any CBCs will put you at risk for dehydration, but you’d be surprised how much harder a day’s activity can be without a good supply of water.
Disposable Hand Warmers
I first discovered these when I got into camping years ago, and they’ve been a life-changer. About the size of teabags, these hand warmers are pouches that produce a surprising amount of heat when removed from their packaging and activated by shaking them. Some are even sticky on one side so they’ll stay secured to the inside of gloves or boots.
You’re going to be walking on a CBC. A lot. Such an outing is not the time for a ratty pair of Converse or flip-flops. Wear a shoe you’d be comfortable hiking in.
Layers and More Layers
This is somewhat dependent on where you live, but December is cold enough for multiple layers most places in the U.S. Up in my native Pacific Northwest, three-to-four layers to begin the morning is a must, plus a rain jacket and rain pants. My typical load out has been a warm undershirt and long underwear, a flannel shirt and heavy Carhartt-style pants, a fleece, an under jacket, and waterproof layers. Don’t forget a hat and gloves. One of the best gifts my wife every got me was a pair of cozy mittens with finger and thumb coverings that folded back so I could more easily manipulate binoculars and my camera.
Binoculars and (Maybe) Camera
Any focused birding outing would not be complete without binoculars. They’re one of the stereotypical signs of a birder for a good reason. If you’re just starting out and lack a pair, consider contacting your CBC organizer and asking about borrowing some. I’ve brought my main pair and a backup small pair on the two CBCs I’ve taken part in, so it’s not unlikely other CBC participants might do the same. Cameras are not a necessity, but I like to bring mine. Remember, though, that the intent of CBCs is data gathering, not photography. Give the birds space and don’t disturb them just for a good photo.
As you’ve likely noticed, I’ve listed a bunch of stuff so far. I’ve always been able to fit it all into a small, lightweight hiking backpack I have. But nothing fancy or expensive is required. Just make sure your backpack is something that sits comfortably on your shoulders with weight in it. Again, you’re going to be walking a fair amount with this thing strapped to your back. Kind of a bonus: your pack will get lighter throughout the day as you tuck into your snacks and drink your water!
A Sense of Fun and Adventure
Last but not least, remember to come prepared to have fun. I’ve described birding previously as a treasure hunt, with the jewels themselves flitting through the trees and undergrowth. Revel in the joy of those around you, and try to soak up as much bird knowledge as you can.
Stay warm, and happy birding!