Christmas Bird Counts


(This 715th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 12, 2004.)


Until about a hundred years ago it was common practice for sportsmen to set out on Christmas day on what were called side hunts. Teams would vie to see who could shoot the most wild birds and animals, which often included many non-game species. The team that won the contest was often commended in magazines of the time.


Frank Chapman, then editor of the first Audubon Society journal, BIRD-LORE, sought a means to end this tradition. His approach: he called upon Society members instead to spend a portion of each Christmas Day "with the birds," reporting the species and numbers of individual birds seen, as well as information about participants and weather conditions. The results would be published each year in the magazine.


On Christmas Day in 1900, 27 people took part in the first of those Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs as they have come to be known). They reported on 26 different localities, two in Canada and the others widely distributed among 13 states. One observer counted just three species, another four; the maximum was 36 in Monterey, California. The overall count total was 90 species, 18,500 individual birds.


Clearly Chapman's idea took hold. In last year's 104th count, 1996 CBCs were organized during the holiday season with well over 63 million birds of almost 600 species tabulated by more than 50,000 birders. And, of course, we no longer have side hunt contests.


Soon after the counts began, the procedures were standardized. Now each is conducted within a 15-mile diameter circle. No longer are they restricted to Christmas Day. This winter, for example, they must be scheduled between December 14 and January 5.


As the number of counts increased over the years, publication strained the resources of the Audubon Society and now the detailed listings of current and historical results are to be found at the website  with only a summary publication distributed by Audubon. Each participant now pays $5.00 to cover costs of compilation and publishing.


On the website, maps also give information gained from the counts about bird distribution. As a research tool this data has proved invaluable, providing insights into trends in bird populations and distribution. It gives us evidence about such things as the sporadic incursions of birds like snowy owls and evening grosbeaks from the far north, the advance of the so-called half-hardies like tufted titmouse and red-bellied woodpecker from the south, and the effects especially on crow and blue jay populations of the West Nile Virus.


Never mind all that organizational structure: it is simply exhilarating to get out on a cold winter day to record birds, no matter what the weather. I have participated in about 50 of these counts since 1940. In that first year on a Rochester CBC Howard Miller led me through deep drifts to a gorge where snow melting from conifers drizzled down my neck. But all my discomfort was forgotten when we heard a loud whistle and soon the bird we were looking for, a beautiful male cardinal, appeared. It was my first observation of what was then a rare bird in New York.


You too can participate in what has come to be known as citizen science. Ten of these counts are scheduled for western New York and two others will be in nearby Canada. I offer here information about those counts. If you are interested in participating, contact the organizer. You do not need to be a birding expert as you will be assigned to a team leader who will welcome your assistance. Also, if you maintain a feeder within one of the count areas, you can report the birds you see on count day to the count leader.-- Gerry Rising


December 18


Beaver Meadow, leader Bill Michalek, 800-377-1520 or


Wilson-Lake Plains, leader Garner Light, 772-5110 or


St. Bonaventure, leader Regina VanScoy, 925-7109 or


Scio, leader Doris Burton, 585-268-5147


December 19


Buffalo, leader Bill Bogacki, 674-5781 or


Jamestown, leader Bob Sundell, 484-2197 or


St. Catharines, Ontario, leader Marcie Jacklin, 905-892-3108 or


December 27


Oak Orchard Swamp, leader Gail Seamans, 585-937-5105 or


Niagara Falls, NY leader Willie D'Anna, 751-3637 or; Ontario leader Kayo Roy, 905-892-4433 or


January 1


Dunkirk-Fredonia, leader Joanne Goetz, 673-1627 or


January 2


Hamburg-East Aurora, leader Mike Zebehazy, (preferably) or 662-6987


Port Colborne, Ontario, leader Drew Campbell, 692-9103 or