Thousands of people across the country have been combing the land, sky and water since Sunday for the 115th annual National Audubon Christmas Bird Count, the longest running citizen science survey in the world.
“The goal is to count every individual bird in your area, which is kind of crazy to think about,” said Doug Hitchcox, the Maine Audubon naturalist who is coordinating the 32 counts taking place in Maine this holiday season.
The first Christmas Bird Count was conducted on Christmas Day of 1900 as an alternative activity to the side hunt, a competitive holiday tradition in which people divided into groups and went outside to shoot as many birds as they could. The group that came back with the most dead birds won the event, according to the National Audubon Society.
Famous American ornithologist Frank Chapman recognized that declining bird populations couldn’t withstand this tradition, so he proposed people count birds on Christmas Day instead of shoot them.
This year, the Christmas Bird Count runs from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5 and likely will include about 200 Maine birders.
In addition to the United States, the count takes place in Canada and several other countries in the Western Hemisphere, producing the most comprehensive data set depicting the changes in bird populations across the continent.
“This data has very clearly driven conservation efforts and will continue to,” Holly Twining, naturalist at Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden, said. “It’s so exciting. You’re actually making a difference.”
Decades of Christmas Bird Count data have enabled National Audubon scientists to predict how climate change will alter the geographic ranges of North American bird species in a recent study. Released this past fall, the study found that 314 bird species, including 50 in Maine, are at risk because of climate change.
Christmas Bird Counts also help inform the national State of the Birds Report that can be found at stateofthebirds.org.
“The long-term trend across all species is numbers are going down, which can almost directly be contributed to habitat loss,” Hitchcox said.
Jerry Smith of Orrington has been involved in the Christmas Bird Count since the 1970s, and he has organized the Bangor-Bucksport count for the past 23 years. During that time, he noticed drastic changes in the area’s bird makeup as bird species, such as the northern cardinal and tufted titmouse, have moved in from the south.
Each count takes place in an established 15-mile diameter circle and is organized by a count compiler, who often assigns sections of the circle to individuals and groups of birders. Anyone can participate, but they must make arrangements ahead of time with the circle compiler.
For the Bangor-Bucksport Christmas Bird Count, Smith typically gets between 30 and 40 volunteers who cover 20 territories within the 15-mile-wide circle. He also gets about 20 to 25 people who count the birds visiting their bird feeders on count day.
“Many of the people involved in the count today have been a part of it as long as I have,” Smith said. “I have friends who’ve been doing it for 25 years or more. There are also new people coming along, younger people. I was contacted this year by college students hoping to do the count this year for the first time. It’s always fun to get new people involved.”
Smith enjoys birding because it’s a way for him to get outside and connect with nature.
“All of my free time is spent bird watching,” Smith said. “I went out to the airport this morning and saw at least one snowy owl sitting there in the rain.”
This year, the Bangor-Bucksport count will be on Jan. 3. People are still welcome to contact Smith to participate.
Though the count is technically a 24-hour period, most volunteers only participate during daylight hours. However, there’s always the option to go “owling” at night.
This year, Hitchcox woke up at 1 a.m. to listen for owls in the Scarborough area and found four great horned owls, a barred owl, a saw-whet owl and and the uncommon long-eared owl. He then spent the day in Nubble Light in Cape Neddick, counting every herring gull as it flew by, as well as about 25 other species of birds.
Many birds migrate out of Maine in the fall, but there’s a still a wide variety of birds living in the state in December, Hitchcox said. So far this month 127 different bird species have been reported in Maine.
During count day, volunteers aren’t supposed to discriminate. The common crows, pigeons and seagulls are tallied alongside bald eagles, snowy owls and the rare red-bellied woodpecker.
“There’s a huge crow roost right in Portland, so it’s always fun to try to get people together to try and count that,” Hitchcox said. “One year, it was a little over 3,000 birds.”
In downtown Bangor, Smith has counted 450 pigeons roosting on a single building, basking in the winter sun.
“Based on what section you have, you’re going to be dealing with different species,” Hitchcox said. “There are some in really suburban areas where you’re driving around look at people’s feeders, and there are some along the coast, where you’ll be counting more ducks and gulls.”
After the count, all of the data are made available to the public on the Audubon’s website.
To learn more or to contact a Christmas Bird Count compiler in your area, visit maineaudubon.org/birding/christmas-bird-count.
Want to learn more? Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden will host the screening of the documentary “Counting on Birds” 6-7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 18, at 216 Field Pond Road. The film, by New Hampshire Public Television, follows Willem Lange as he travels from New England to Ecuador and Cuba to meet people who participate in the Christmas Bird Count. Admission is $5. For information, call 989-2591.