Christmas Bird Count maintains long-term data on wintering birds

Christmas Bird Count maintains long-term data on wintering birds

It is the time of year for the Audubon Christmas Bird Counts. Avid birders in North Dakota bundle up for below zero wind chills, hike through deep snow and battle with frosty binocular views. They are trying to find that ever elusive bird to make this year’s Christmas Bird Count one to remember.

Around the turn of the 20th century, conservation-minded observers and scientists were becoming concerned with declining bird populations. On Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer in the Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition of a Christmas Bird Census or CBC. Observers would count all the birds they could find rather than hunting them as people did in the past. Twenty-seven dedicated observers in 25 locations tallied 90 species that day. The locations ranged from Toronto, Ontario, to Pacific Grove, Calif., with most of the counts centering in population centers in the northeast.

Now in the 21st century, nearly 2,000 CBCs take place involving 55,000 participants across the country. In North Dakota, about 20 CBCs take place comprising of population centers and refuges. The count period established by Audubon runs from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5 of the next year. These counts take place in a predefined “count circle” with a radius of 7.5 miles from a designated central point. The center of the circle for the Bismarck-Mandan CBC is the Capitol building. The date the Bismarck-Mandan Bird Club chose this year is Dec. 16 as some of the volunteers help with the Medora CBC on Dec. 15.

The primary goal of a Christmas Bird Count is to monitor the status and distribution of bird populations across the country. The result of these efforts has created the longest-running database in history, representing more than a century of unbroken data on trends of early winter bird populations.

The Christmas Bird Counts have two types of observers that make up the participant pool. The avid birders who drive about the area in their vehicles are referred to as the “field observers.” These folks are trying to find as many birds as they can in the best areas within the count circle. To achieve a thorough census of the CBC circle, we also need the help of the other type of participants which are “feeder or yard watchers.” Individual may submit an estimate of what they observe at the feeders to be included in the census. This includes a count of both species and individuals. The Bismarck-Mandan CBC typically finds from 45 to 55 species.

In the long harsh cold winters of North Dakota, some bird species rely heavily on the available food and water provided in backyards. The sparrows and blackbirds that normally migrate south may linger in an area where they feel comfortable. In addition to these late lingering birds, there is usually a bird or two that is far from its normal range. Birds in this category would include varied thrush, which is a regular visitor from the western mountains, Northern cardinal, which is a regular wanderer from Minnesota, or maybe even a Carolina wren, which wintered at feeders in North Dakota a couple times in the past decade.

Feeder watchers are valuable to a high CBC count as no one would know these gems of the winter bird world exist without reporting them to a CBC participant. If you have a backyard feeder setup and have sightings to share, contact me at and I can include them in this year’s Bismarck-Mandan CBC results.

Last year at this time, it was brutally cold with some counts run with actual temps in the -20s below zero. This year should be much nicer for the bird enthusiasts. Happy Holidays to all.


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