If you’re looking for an unforgettable citizen science experience, I have the perfect suggestion for you: take part in a Christmas Bird Count. A CBC (as it’s known among birders) is birding on a different level. And the great part is that you don’t need any special expertise or experience to participate. CBC team leaders are always happy to have another set of eyes to count birds. But, I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.
Before the turn of the last century, hunters in the eastern U.S. had a holiday tradition of a Christmas “side hunt.” They’d choose sides and on December 25th, take their guns and sally forth. The side with the most dead feathered and furred quarry at the end of the day won.
In 1900, Frank Chapman, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York proposed a Christmas census to count, instead of kill, birds. The fledgling Audubon Society, of which Chapman was an officer, took over the idea and today, 117 years later, it’s going strong. That first CBC, there were 25 Christmas Bird Counts with 27 birders counting. They recorded about 90 species.
Much has changed since then. Now, instead of being on Christmas day, all CBCs are held sometime between December 14 and January 5. Numbers and participation have changed as well. For example, the 116th CBC (December 2015/January 2016) saw over 70,000 volunteers count close to 70 million individual birds from Canada to South America.
All this data is valuable in helping to establish population fluctuation patterns in migratory bird populations.
So, let’s bring it down to basics; just how is a CBC conducted? The basic unit is a CBC circle that’s 15 miles (or 24 kilometers) in diameter. Each circle is divided into sectors, with a team leader and their team of counters spending all day from sunrise to sunset counting every bird they can identify by sight or sound. The team leaders report their results to the Circle compiler, who organizes the results for the entire circle and passes the information on to the regional editors, who pass it on to the national CBC office. There are even teams that go “owling,” which, as it sounds, is counting owls either before light or after dark.
So, as I wrote earlier, you don’t need any special expertise to be part of the CBC. Even if you can’t tell a White-winged Dove from a Wilson’s Snipe, you can count and mark down tally marks. Or, you can drive. Being as there’s a fair amount of territory to cover, teams spend a lot of time driving, so that is a valuable skill to contribute.
This year will be the 45th Las Cruces CBC, and we have the distinction of holding the all-time record for White-winged Doves. The high, sometime in the mid-1970s was over 40,000. So, on some Las Cruces teams, one birder is assigned to count nothing but these birds. I know. I’ve done it!
Since its center is between the Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum and Centennial High School, the Las Cruces CBC circle covers a diverse spectrum of habitat from the foothills of the Organs to the Rio Grande floodplain. This makes for a wide range of species an alert birder can see.
Habitat isn’t the sole influence on the number of species and individual birds seen on count day, though. Temperature, precipitation and wind also factor into the equation. Both last year’s species and individual bird count were greatly reduced due to the high winds and haboob that day. Precisely because it takes place in all kinds of weather, though, is one of the reasons that the CBC data is so valuable. We’re not going out to just have a fun day of birding, we’re out to collect information to help scientists better understand the overall health of North and South American bird populations.
The Las Cruces portion of the 118th annual CBC (sponsored by the Mesilla Valley Audubon Society) takes place this year on Saturday, December 16. Remember that birders of all skill levels are welcome. There will be a pre-CBC meeting and orientation at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, December 13, at the Southwest Environmental Center 275 N. Main Street. If you’re interested in participating, please plan to attend. If you want to take part but can’t make the meeting, you can contact the Las Cruces compiler, Wayne Treers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 528-8696.
There are two other sort of local CBCs you can also take part in if your appetite for citizen science is sufficiently whetted by the Las Cruces Count. This year’s La Luz Count (centered on the post office in the village of that name north of Alamogordo) will be on Saturday, December 23. A week later, on Saturday, December 30, will be the Caballo (centered on the campground south of the dam that forms Caballo Lake) CBC. The compiler for both is John Douglas, reachable at email@example.com or 541-0133. If you can’t reach him, you can also contact Wayne Treers, the Las Cruces CBC compiler, or Mark Pendleton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 635-8711.
The Bird of the Month feature is sponsored by MVAS, the Mesilla Valley Audubon Society, the local chapter of the National Audubon Society. To find out more about MVAS, including monthly meetings and field trips, visit newmexico-birds.com.