Christmas Bird Counts — Missouri Was Among the First

By Sarah Kendrick and Brad Jacobs | October 19, 2015
From Missouri Conservationist: Nov 2015

If you are new to birding, you may think of it as a spring activity — the weather is warmer, breeding birds are returning from their warmer migratory and winter habitats, and their sweet sounds fill the air. However, experienced birders know that birding is a year-round sport, and with the bitter cold of December and January comes one of birding’s oldest activities — the Christmas Bird Count Each year, tens of thousands of volunteers across the country, including Department staff, bundle up and hit the road to count birds seen or heard within assigned areas of the state. Since 1900, data gathered through this nationwide count have been used to compile yearly reports, detailing species-specific maps of where birds spend the winter months in the United States and Canada.

But how did this long-lasting tradition get started?

Before Surveys

Before effective federal and state regulations were in place, laws in the early 20th century were not sufficient to stop the declines of many birds and other wildlife.

Market hunting, egg collecting, and plume hunting were devastating bird populations. Because there was no limit on the amount of wildlife that people could take, local populations of wildlife could be severely impacted in just a few years. While not as devastating, even biologists used to harvest multiple birds of the same species so they could credibly identify the bird, and sometimes they used their harvest as a way to estimate bird population numbers. These practices occurred before long-term conservation efforts, at a time when many believed that wildlife and other natural resources were limitless.

Christmas Bird Counts

Frank Chapman was an ornithologist and one of the first to write and publish a birding field guide in 1895. Handbook of the Birds of Eastern North America was the most popular bird guide of its time. Chapman came up with the idea that citizens could participate in a birding activity that didn’t involve negatively affecting the already diminished populations of many birds. Chapman and 26 other participants set out to count the birds that they saw and heard on Dec. 25, 1900, marking the first Christmas Bird Count. Thirteen states and two Canadian provinces participated in just 25 counts that first year, including one in LaGrange, Missouri.

The Christmas Bird Count is the longest-running citizen-science effort in the United States, and continues today in many countries around the world. This program, run by the National Audubon Society, recruits volunteer birders and scientists to count all the birds seen or heard within a 15-mile-diameter circle in locations across the United States and southern Canada. The count period must occur on a single day between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, and the large survey area is usually divided into smaller tracts, depending on the number of participating birding parties. Each party searches for bird species and counts all individuals of each species observed within their assigned area. To cover as much of the area as possible, the count lasts from before sunrise to after sunset. At the end of the day, all of the birding parties gather together to tally their findings and create a list of species and numbers for the entire survey area. The results of Missouri’s Christmas Bird Counts are summarized on the National Audubon Society’s website at

In the winter of 2014–2015, volunteers conducted 2,459 Christmas Bird Count surveys nationwide. These surveys detected over 68 million individual birds of more than 600 bird species in the United States and Canada.

In Missouri, there are currently 27 counts conducted each year. Last winter, 500 birders spent 1,235 hours and traveled 8,051 miles searching for birds throughout their survey circles. They tallied a total of 145 species. In addition to the daytime portions of the counts, birders also surveyed during twilight and nighttime hours for owls.

How Are Christmas Bird Count and Other Bird Survey Data Used?

Data collected based on a large-area survey such as the Christmas Bird Count have been used by researchers in more than 400 scientific studies. The information allows scientists to monitor health and status and calculate long-term trends of bird populations across North America. The Christmas Bird Count provides a snapshot of birds’ winter locations. The Breeding Bird Survey, in contrast, is a survey conducted in the summer months to gain a snapshot of the distribution of breeding birds. Successive years of both of these bird monitoring techniques allow scientists to determine long-term seasonal trends in our continent’s bird populations and help them spot species’ declines.

Want to Get Involved?

The organizers of Missouri’s 27 Christmas Bird Counts are always looking for seasoned birders as well as novices interested in getting started. Every survey party should include experienced birders, or those with the ability to identify birds through sight and sound, as well as beginner and intermediate birders that can help locate birds. The more eyes looking and ears listening for birds during the Christmas Bird Counts the better.

For beginners, working with experienced birders is one of the best ways to improve birding skills. Anecdotes, birding stories, and conversations about field markings and habitats are all part of the fun of honing your bird identification skills. Likewise, mentoring new birders is a great way for experienced birders to spread a love for birds and ensure that birding and bird monitoring continue in the future. If you have time, participating in several counts is a great way to get started birding and develop your skills quickly.

Visit to join a Christmas Bird Count and visit to find and join an Audubon Chapter in Missouri. Christmas Bird Counts bring enjoyment to many birders and supply extremely valuable data to scientists and conservationists to help them better understand where bird species spend the winter on a continental scale. And nothing creates a tighter bond and more memorable stories amongst birders than birding for 24 hours in freezing-cold temperatures. So find your local Audubon Chapter, grab your binoculars and long-johns, and be a part of the 116th Christmas Bird Count. You’ll find out what “brrrding” is all about.

What Is Citizen Science?

Citizen science is a fun and useful way for citizens and scien-tists to work together to collect data and analyze bird popula-tion trends. When it comes to wildlife monitoring, there are too few biologists in the world to collect enough field data across large geographic areas. To gather enough data to allow for statistical analysis, biologists often rely on a large network of outdoor enthusiasts, in concert with trained biologists, to enhance the capacity of science and supply the needed volume of data. Citizen participation gives the public a greater under-standing of scientific techniques and allows them to ask questions, gather data, and learn the value of long-term data and how group interactions provide greater understanding of bird population changes.

Backyard Bird Count — Help Out on a Smaller Scale

If you don’t have a full day to count birds on a Christmas Bird Count, check out the Great Backyard Bird Count. Between Feb. 12–15, 2016, you can count and record the birds you see in your backyard, on your property, at a local conservation area, or anywhere. The minimum count time required is 15 minutes, but you can count the birds you see in as many places as you can over the four-day period. These data act as a snapshot of where birds are in the winter and help scientists at Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society gauge changes in bird numbers year to year and learn more about migration patterns. Last year, 135 countries participated in the global bird count and over 4,000 different species were counted. To learn more and get involved, visit

A Birder’s Memories

Brad Jacobs’ Christmas Bird Counts

My life as a birder began in February 1958 when I joined the Norman Bird Club in Greenfield, Massachusetts. One of my first activities in this group was to count birds on a day that was 10 degrees below zero with 3–4 feet of snow on the ground. Being a snow skier, I was prepared with the necessary insulation and water-repellent clothes — insulated gloves, scarves, wool pants, and jacket — and a thermos of hot chocolate. Expectations were high and daylight hours were few, but we managed to find 27 species. I never had so much fun.

Over the years, wherever my travels took me and home happened to be, there always were Christmas Bird Counts nearby and coordinators in need of birders. I have participated in multiple counts in Arizona, Colorado, New York, and Missouri.

A count in Elfrida, Arizona, in the 1980s was fun because it held the nationwide high count for seven species of birds — like the greater roadrunner, black-chinned sparrow, and Albert’s towhee — from the southwestern United States. I recall my best find was the only rough-legged hawk on the count that year. One or two were seen in most years, but only in my assigned area, so I was under pressure not to miss it. Some folks participated in this count by recording the birds they saw at their bird feeders. In those years, the total species recorded were around 140–150 and a thousand or so individual birds. Today the Elfrida count shows about 10 birders participating and only 100 or so species located. Birders grow up or move around, small towns become larger towns, and Christmas Bird Counts come and go with sthe flow of people.

Also In This Issue

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This Issue's Staff

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Art Director - Cliff White
Associate Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
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