Highlights of Audubon’s 112th Christmas Bird Count

Guest post by Bob Bowers
The Northern Cardinal, One of the Easier
CBC Birds to Spot (photos Bob Bowers)
Volume 66 of American Birds, which details results of the National Audubon Society’s 112th annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC), has just been published.  This will be the last hard copy version of the magazine, a data-rich compilation of statistics gathered by tens of thousands of citizen-scientists within a 23-day period each winter.  The hard copy magazine will be replaced by an online version, reducing production costs and benefitting participants, members and researchers simultaneously.  Beginning with the upcoming 113th CBC, which runs from December 14, 2012 through January 5, 2013, the five-dollar participation fee will be waived.  Additionally, the society announced that annual count results will be posted online as they are completed, which will provide a lot of information much earlier than the typical October publication.  This will benefit researchers and others who use the results, and the society hopes that elimination of the participation fee will add more volunteers and expand the counting areas, further enriching the data.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Bob Bowers)
The annual results are always fascinating, valuable and sometimes surprising, and those just published are no exception.  Each of the past few years has shown record participation, record counts and expanding surveys, and the 2011-2012 results once more raises the bar.  As Geoffrey LeBaron, the CBC Director reports, the 112th count was notable for a number of reasons, and remarkable in its results.  As seems to be the case everywhere lately, weather was an important factor, with one of the least wintry counts on record.  While snow itself was less of an issue, pre-count excitement built as high numbers of Snowy Owls began appearing much farther south than usual.  Indeed, 546 Snowy Owls were reported in a broad swath of southern Canadian provinces and U.S. states, including nine each in two separate South Dakota circles.  In the opinion of Sebastian Patti, who summarized that area’s data, enough to qualify each as a ‘Parliament’, the term used for an assemblage of owls.

Male Phainopepla, a Common CBC find in Arizona (Bob Bowers)
Whether influenced by mild winter weather, increased participant involvement or the vagaries of bird behavior, the bottom line results continue to impress.  The 112th CBC consisted of 2,248 count circles in the U.S., Canada, Latin America, the Caribbean and several Pacific islands.  That’s a jump of 88 circles from the prior year’s record, and includes new additions in Columbia, Cuba, Jamaica and Mexico, as well as the U.S. and Canada.  These circles were counted by a record 63,227 observers, who tallied nearly 65 million birds and 2,298 species, almost a fourth of the world’s total species.  As usual, Texas and California counts dominated the list of most species found north of Mexico.  Matagorda County-Mad Island Marsh in Texas repeated its top ranking with 244 species, and the top 29 North American circles were all in Texas and California.  Of Arizona’s 33 count circles, 2 qualified for the list of 150 species or more:   Phoenix-Tres Rios, number 73 with 156 species, and Patagonia with 150.

These numbers are a far cry from the first Christmas Bird Count in 1900.  As the 19th century drew to a close, bird populations were unprotected and many threatened.  Unbelievably, there was an annual event called ‘the Side Hunt’, where participants chose sides and competed to see which group could shoot and kill the most birds.  Frank Chapman, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History, was appalled by this slaughter and decided to do something about it.  Chapman came up with the idea to count birds rather than kill them, and he recruited 27 observers in 25 locations from California to Ontario to tally birds that Christmas.  Ninety species were recorded, and this activity led to founding of the National Audubon Society five years later.  Fortunately, the Side Hunt faded away as interest in conservation and the Christmas Bird Count grew to today’s remarkable level.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Bob Bowers)
The annual count generates invaluable data used by ornithologists, researchers and decision-makers around the world, and has contributed to legislation and conservation measures that protect birds everywhere.  You don’t have to be a scientist to participate, nor do you have to be an expert birder.  Each 15-mile diameter count circle is led by an experienced compiler/coordinator, and volunteers are welcomed with enthusiasm.  Detailed information describing how to volunteer and participate in this year’s count can be found on the National Audubon Society’s web site beginning in mid-November or Tucson Audubon's site for local details.  You don’t have to be a member, but I would encourage you to join both the national organization and your closest local affiliate.  Signing on to a count this holiday season as a citizen-scientist is an easy way to make a material contribution to birds.  It’s also a great way to meet interesting people with similar interests, have a fun day and learn something new.  Beginning this year, it’s also free.

Additional Info: 
Arizona CBC details - tucsonaudubon.org/cbc
Tucson Valley Count - Dec. 16 - Rich Hoyer 520-325-5310 birdernaturalist@me.com
Atascosa Highlands 2011 count report - Tucson Audubon Blog