The National Audubon Society has been sponsoring Christmas Bird Counts across North America for more than 100 years. The goals of the Christmas Bird Count are as follows: 1) engage citizens in gathering information; 2) empower citizens to take action on behalf of places important to them and important to wildlife; 3) foster a new culture of conservation. The longest running Citizen Science survey in the world, the Christmas Bird Count provides critical data on bird populations. Viewed in comparison with other long-term monitoring programs, such as the Breeding Bird Survey, Christmas Bird Count data helps to provide an understanding of bird population trends across North America in early winter. The count also provides an enjoyable social experience – tens of thousands of birdwatchers participate in this event each year.
How does the Christmas Bird Count work?
Volunteer Citizen Scientists gather information on bird numbers over a three-week period. Observers not only note each species they encounter during their time in the field, but also how many of each species they see and the time and mileage they spend counting birds. All observations are then submitted to a nationally based science staff and reviewed by a panel of regional experts. Data sets are available to the public and researchers for review and scientific study on the National Audubon website.
Christmas Bird Counts in Wisconsin
WSO helps to coordinate more than 100 Christmas Bird Count circles in Wisconsin. This year’s count will take place Dec 14 to January 5. coordinates the Christmas Bird Counts in Wisconsin. is the Wisconsin Editor for the National Audubon Christmas Bird Count. If interested to participate in a count, please see the map below and contact a compiler near you.
Compilers can update their information by emailing .
Christmas Bird Counts for Kids
Children have not always been accommodated in the traditional Christmas Bird Counts because of its rigorous nature. In recent years, however, there has been a movement to design Christmas Bird Counts for children. Tom Rusert of Sonoma Birding organized the first “CBC for Kids” for Sonoma County, CA in early 2008. This half-day count focused on kids 8-16 years old. In 2012, the Woodland Dunes Nature Center and Preserve conducted Wisconsin’s first Christmas Bird Count for Kids. The event attracted more than a dozen local children who were very motivated to learn about birds. For more information on the Woodland Dunes count, please read the November 2013 Badger Birder article. For those interested to start a local Christmas Bird Count for Kids event, the National Audubon Society provides the following tips:
Comfort is Key – Kids have small faces and hands, so they require binoculars that are easy to hold, can be adjusted to match the distance between their eyes, and allow them to easily reach the focus knob. The binoculars should be light enough to wear comfortably.
Keep Magnification Low – Don’t buy binoculars with more than 8x magnification; 6x is better. High magnification equals a narrow field of view and a shaky image, making binoculars harder to use—especially for kids.
Adjust to Fit – Spend a few minutes with your child adjusting the binoculars to match the distance between their eyes. If they don’t wear glasses, extend the eye cups; keep them retracted if they do wear glasses. Make sure that they can see a single image and are able to turn the focus knob easily.
Practice – Take your child to a pond or lake shore where they can look at waterfowl and/or wading birds, which are slow moving, big, and thus are more easily viewed through binoculars. Teach your child to first look at the bird without binoculars and to then bring the binoculars up to their eyes without looking away from the bird. Move on to smaller, faster birds when they seem ready. Teach your child to always wear the binocular strap around their neck.
Tips on Christmas Bird Counts
These tips were developed by former WSO President Carl Schwartz based on his personal experience, as well as knowledge gleaned from the late Noel Cutright and current editor of ABA's Birding magazine Ted Floyd. It is adapted from an article in the Badger Birder (November 2014)
- A good count needs a lot of counters. As Ted notes, a CBC circle is 177 square miles. Even if you had 177 participants, each one of them covering exactly 1 square mile, there is no way you’d have thorough coverage of the count circle. A square mile is huge! Madison annually records the highest species total, logging 77 species and 25,574 individual birds in 2013, thanks in part to a record 118 observers. Yet many counts are done with fewer than a dozen.
- So make the experience fun. Time having a fun breakfast together takes time out of the field, so maybe listen for owls first, have breakfast and be back in the field by sunup. Potluck suppers (after sunset) to tally the results can build enthusiasm for next year.
- Cover lots of ground. Maximizing party-hours is the most important thing to do, Ted argues, but maximizing party-miles runs a close second. You’re going to see twice as many birds along a four-mile stretch as along a two-mile stretch. Floyd argued that, mile-for-mile, party-miles by foot are incomparably more valuable than party-miles by car. But if you have a count circle split into just six territories, that’s going to mean lots of car miles. The key is having at least two observers in the car and stopping periodically at spots that look or sound “birdy” and pishing or playing a screech owl tape (Noel was still using an old cassette recorder but iPhone apps and modern speakers make this even easier).
- Drive every road. Who knows what you will miss by leaving part of your territory completely uncovered? Sometimes driving the same road twice will yield species missed the first time.
- Scout your territory. Get out into your assigned area a few days before count day. Figure out which residences have bird feeders. Work the hedgerows and determine where all the sparrows and finches are hanging out. Introduce yourself to key landowners and secure permission to bird their property on count day.
- Have a plan. Figure out your itinerary in advance. Noel printed out or photocopied a map, planned a route and highlighted each road as it was covered. Leave enough time to get to where you need to go. If you’re faced with high winds, know where there are sheltered spots where the birds will take cover.
- Count every bird. It’s in looking through all those Canada Geese that you will find a blue phase Snow Goose, or the Brown-headed Cowbird in a flock of Starlings. Observed Ted: “I find that actually taking the time to count, say, Ring-billed Gulls (954, 955, 956...) is the best way to find a rarity (957... oh, wait, that’s a Mew Gull!)”.
- Hang out a sign. Putting a sign on the back of your vehicle identifying you as part of the Christmas Bird Count will save some horn-blaring and answer some potential questions in advance.