Everything You Need to Know to Do a Free (and Fun) Christmas Bird Count

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For birders, winter is the time to stock up on suet, bundle up for bird walks, and participate in one of the biggest community science efforts of the year: the Christmas Bird Count (CBC). From mid-December to early January, more than 2,000 groups across the hemipshere head outside to tally species within a 15-mile radius. Whether you’re a total beginner or an expert birder, you can join some 50,000 people as they take part in this year’s event.

Hold on. What’s the Christmas Bird Count again?

The annual Audubon-led census is one of the longest-running bird-monitoring projects in the world. Its data has helped researchers gauge how species will adapt to climate change and highlight shifting population trends in rare and common wildlife. “Every hour that every person spends in the field on a CBC is going to be contributing to something that’s meaningful for bird conservation,” says Geoff LeBaron, who’s directed the program for more than 30 years.

It’s also really fun. After a few hours of exploring outside, the day might end with a potluck dinner where participants hang out, compare stats, and make future birding plans.

So, how do you sign up?

Whether you live in Canada, Kansas, or Central America, chances are there’s a CBC near you. Check out the interactive map on the Audubon website, where you can enter your city or zip code to find the nearest circle. If the icon is green or yellow, the circle is open to join. Click or tap to pull up information about when the count is happening and how to contact the person organizing the event.

You can also search online for “Christmas Bird Count” and your state, province, or country to pull up a list of circles by date.

What does a typical count day look like?

If you’re new to birding, don’t worry—you’ll be paired up with at least an experienced birder or two. Generally, groups include a dozen so or participants, broken up into smaller teams. If you live in a big city, you might join a count with hundreds of folks; if you’re in a small community, you could head out with just a handful of people.

When it’s finally time to get going (owl watchers start as early as 4 or 5 a.m., all others closer to 8 a.m.), your group will follow a set route to identify and survey the birds in the neighborhood. IDs are made either by sight or sound, and every last sparrow, pigeon, and robin gets recorded. Each count is slightly different. You might drive to a few different parks or wetlands and walk around. Or you might scout for birds by boat. You can dabble for an hour or spend the whole day.

Do you need any special gear?

Dress casually but to be comfortable outdoors. Wear shoes you can put miles on and bring ample water and snacks. If you’re somewhere cold, layer up with hats, gloves, and hand and foot warmers (you can buy them at Walmart for $5 or less).

If you have binoculars, bring them along. If not, there should be plenty of pairs between your fellow counters, along with more heavy-duty equipment like scopes. Either way, don’t underestimate your ears and eyes—they provide plenty of bird-detecting power alone.

Generally, the leader of your circle will have a field guide on hand. If you have a smartphone, you can download an ID app like Audubon”s free field guide  to help you decide if the woodpecker you saw was a Hairy or Downy. Or brush up on the common winter birds of your area before you head out. 

Can anyone participate?

Yes, anyone and everyone is welcome to join—students, seniors, families, and all those in between. The count gives young birders an opportunity to learn from mentors year after year, and often serves as a reunion for old friends. If you’re concerned that a disability might hold you back, or are interested in joining a Spanish-friendly count, contact your local organizer to learn about the options.

Does it have to take place outside?

No, you can contribute right from your kitchen window. If you live within a CBC circle, just count the birds visiting your feeder on the event date. Be sure to give the details your location to the organizer, though, and submit your data afterward.

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