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Earth Notes: Christmas Bird Count

Jocelyn Anderson/WikiCommons

Americans who celebrated Christmas in the year 1900 had many traditions familiar today: Christmas trees, greeting cards, gifts, and Santa Claus. But one tradition was new that year: The Christmas Bird Count, an event sponsored by the Audubon Society to draw attention to the world’s diminishing birds.

The goal was to offer an alternative to another holiday tradition of the era: the Christmas Side Hunt in which participants split into teams and competed to see who could shoot the most game. Conservation was in its early stages, but some people began to worry about declining populations of birds. That’s why ornithologist Frank Chapman proposed getting people together, not to kill birds, but to count them.

The original Christmas Bird Count involved 27 birders in the U.S. and Canada, who tallied up 90 species on Christmas Day. More than a century later, the survey continues in what may be the world’s longest-running community science project. Tens of thousands of volunteers sign up to participate during the last two weeks of December, counting thousands of species and millions of individual birds all over the globe.

Scientists use the enormous database to assess the health of bird populations, a task that’s become more urgent because of human-caused climate change. The data show that some of North America’s most recognized birds, like the bald eagle and northern cardinal, are in trouble. It’s the hope of modern-day counters that the project will inspire more protection and conservation of birds…. just as Chapman and others hoped on that long-ago Christmas Day.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.