A Bird’s Tale

Get ready for the world’s largest citizen science project

Posted:  Wednesday, December 6, 2017 - 12:00pm

It’s that time of year again! It’s not JUST the holiday season. Already, tens of thousands of birders (over 70,000 last year) are eagerly awaiting the period roughly two weeks before and after Christmas Day for their opportunity to participate in one or more Christmas Bird Counts. As you may remember from a few of our past columns, the project is run by the National Audubon Society and known by most birders by its acronym, the CBC, the endeavor is said to be the largest and longest-running citizen science project in the world. Each count is done within the boundaries of a 15-mile diameter circle that, once determined and mapped, is never changed. No CBC can overlap with another one.  A compiler organizes teams of birders to cover sections of the CBC circle all on the same given day. Each team counts the number of each species identified within their assigned section and the section totals are all added together to get a grand total for each species for the entire CBC circle. Last year there were 2,536 CBCs carried out with 1,933 in the United States, 447 in Canada, and 156 in Latin America, the Caribbean, and/or the Pacific Island.

There is no limit to the number of people who can participate on a CBC. In fact, most counts are always looking for more help. Some CBCs compete to have the most participants. The winners are usually those counts located in or near cities, but we were surprised to find that the CBC with the largest number of participants last year was the Edmonton, Alberta, CBC with an astounding 456 observers! The top contender closest to us here in Maine was the Concord, Massachusetts, CBC that came in at fifth place with 311 participants.

Every year a few new CBCs are added to the growing list. Last year 65 new ones were carried out including a new CBC right here in Maine, at Grand Lake Steam in Washington County. Maine now has 33 CBCs—more than enough to find one or more on which to join in!

Christmas Bird Counts have also historically had friendly competitions to see which one can find the most species. Of course, none can compete with those in South America, some of which can register more than 400 species. In the U.S. the winners are in the South. Last year the Matagorda, Texas, CBC, with 229 species, beat out the San Diego, California, CBC which tallied 213 species. In fact, the top 20 highest counts were all in California and Texas. The first CBC in the last from another state was the Wilmington, North Carolina, CBC that came in at 27th with 172 species. Surprisingly, the highest Florida count was the Gainesville CBC that the 34th position with 166 species.

Here in Maine we can’t compete with those numbers but we can compare CBCs within our boundaries. Last year, the Portland CBC was at the top with 88 species; for those with a competitive spirit, that total beat out New Hampshire’s top count by one. If you feel bad comparing Maine’s top count of 88 with Matagorda’s 229 species, you may feel better when you hear that the top count in the northern Arctic Canadian province of Nunavut was four species!

There is still time to join in the fun. To find a count near you go to http://www.audubon.org/join-christmas-bird-count.

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of “Birder’s Conservation Handbook. His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” and the newly published “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao” from Cornell Press.