The Christmas Bird Count Explained: The Messiah Sing-along of Birding

Guest post by Rich Hoyer
Tucson Valley Count Coordinator

If you’ve heard and read about the Christmas Bird Count but not done one, you may have the wrong impression of what it is all about. Almost any official description brags of its wide scope, long history, and important scientific value. It’s described as “oldest and most important citizen science poject,” among others. I’m convinced that this creates for many an image of a bunch of serious folk doing something important but tedious, requiring a high level of skill. I have a different take on this annual event: I declare it not science or a data-gathering exercise, but rather the most fun social birding event all year. I think of it as the Messiah sing-along of birding, where even the most rank beginners are welcome and are certain to have a good time.

Chestnut-sided Warbler is one of the rare eastern warblers that sometimes is found on the Tucson Valley CBC.

If you’re totally new to the idea of the Christmas Bird Count, or CBC, here’s my quick synopsis: On one day from December 14 to January 5 each year, a bunch of people spread out and go birding in a 15-mile diameter circle. They keep track of every bird they see, then get together in the evening to tally up the species count and share their day’s experiences. Why do people do this? What is so special about a CBC that keeps people coming back year after year, in any kind of weather? Because it’s great fun! Birding is fun any day of the year but is even more fun in a group effort when your participation becomes part of something bigger. The meeting at the end of the day is at least half of the fun, and some have said about the CBC “it’s all about the food.”

White-winged Dove is one of the scarce winter birds in Tucson that goes unnoticed until dozens of birders scour the neighborhoods all on the same day.

There are hundreds of these 15-mile diameter circles across the North American continent, extending to Hawaii and even south through the Caribbean and Central and South America. In fact, last year there were 2248 of these circles. Each one is defined by the latitude and longitude of its center and was created by a CBC junkie and approved by the National Audubon Society, which maintains the giant database of records dating back over a hundred years. There are a few requirements that have to be met before a circle is founded, but even you can create a CBC circle in your area if there isn’t one already. (Incidentally, the current Tucson Valley circle was created by Edward Chalif in 1971.)

The Tucson Valley CBC has lots of urban habitats that birders cover, but a chunk of the gorgeous, largely inaccessible Santa Catalina Mountains fills the NE part of the circle.

After the day’s birding is the countdown meeting and dinner – either at a restaurant, a private home, or, for a CBC in a larger urban area with lots of participants, a meeting hall. There people warm up from the day out in the winter weather, share their experiences over a great meal, and then participate in the final countdown tally. This is where the compiler reads down the master list of the species and all counters call out “yes” for every one that was seen, remaining quiet for those species missed. Then if any unexpected species were found, each group gets a chance to share their fun finds, and we find out how many species were recorded by all teams during the day.

This is where the Messiah sing-along analogy comes in. Just as you can spend any day birding in the field on your own or with a small group of friends, you could hum a tune while doing dishes or get together once a week to sing 4-part English madrigals. Both are gratifying in their own way, and you don’t need to be an expert to enjoy either. But in the grand sing-along, you sing or hum an otherwise meaningless harmony (or a melody that would be horrible if I just tried to sing it on my own), and you do it with 60 or 100 others also doing their little part. The end result is marvelous and bigger than the mere sum of its parts. On a CBC, you get a huge number of people birding in places they would never think to cover on their own, and the end result is an amazing variety of species and unexpected rarities that you could never find on your own in a single day. Later, when the results from all CBC's are in, we can compare how many species we got with others in the state or rate how well did with species for which we often get the high count (Tucson Valley usually leads the nation with Mourning Doves, Cooper’s Hawks, Vermilion Flycatchers, and Verdins, among others). I have a hunch that this year we’ll certainly lead the state with the most number of participants. 

Birders on the Santa Cruz River have their work cut out for them, sorting through and counting flocks that could contain White-crowned Sparrow and Lark Bunting, as in this bush.

On top of all that, the birds we tallied do become part of the international CBC database which – despite our being amateur and hobby birders and participating just for the fun – has scientific and conservation value. We keep track of how many people were birding for how many miles and hours, and with this done every year, species that are relatively numerous and easy to observe reveal trends in their populations that can be tied into more rigorous scientific surveys. So when you participate on a Christmas Bird Count, do it for the fun and the chance to participate in an event that’s bigger than the sum of its parts. You can even hum Handel’s Messiah while your at it.