Counting birds, rain or shine
Audubon gets ready for the annual Christmas Bird Count
Mary Muchowski is open about her addiction. For at least one day a year around Christmastime, she joins tens of thousands of other similarly addicted people to sit outside, binoculars in hand, from 7:30 a.m. until dark, rain or shine.
Muchowski is addicted to birdwatching. Every year, birders across the United States, like Muchowski, meet up with their local chapter of the National Audubon Society (NAS), a nonprofit bird-conservation organization, and count each and every robin, hawk and grosbeak and so on that they see. Here in Chico, the Altacal Audubon Society has been conducting a Christmas Bird Count (CBC) every year since the chapter’s formation in 1955.
The first-ever CBC occurred on Christmas Day 1900, when an East Coast ornithologist named Frank Chapman, an officer of the nascent Audubon Society, organized the bird census as a conservation-minded alternative to the typical Christmas bird hunt. Now, 113 bird counts later, the CBC is arguably the biggest example of “citizen science”—research conducted by non-scientists—and is the “longest-running wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations,” according to the NAS.
“We do the Christmas Bird Count no matter what [the weather],” said Muchowski, who works for the U.S. Forest Service in Oroville. “We’re pretty lucky to be here in California!” In other parts of the country, it’s not uncommon for CBC participants to be bundled up for heavy snow.
Even in above-freezing weather, it is still a long day outside. “Yeah, we just get the hardcore birders out there,” Muchowski said, laughing, and added, “You can warm up when you get back in your car.”
Here in Chico, Muchowski and her birder friends will join together at the Chico Creek Nature Center at 7:30 a.m. on Dec. 15 for the day-long event. Altacal has already mapped out its counting region—a 15-mile-diameter circle around Chico where CBC participants will count as many birds as possible.
The area includes birding hotspots like Upper Bidwell Park, Chico Oxidation Ponds Wildlife Sanctuary, a “teeny stretch” of the Sacramento River and the Butte Creek Country Club (“It’s hard to do it with all the golfers,” Muchowski related. “If the weather is bad, it’s actually easier because there are fewer golfers!”). In some locations, participants can drive right to their spot, but in others, such as Upper Park, the bird-counters may have a long hike.
Each bird counter will get a packet with a map and a bird list to assist in tallying. Beginning birders are invited, too. “We want to pair people who are good birders with people who are less experienced, so the less experienced can get more experience and have someone who knows [more] so they can be more confident,” said Muchowski.
The local count attracts at least 20 people every year, regardless of the weather. The only requirement for participation is binoculars. “Dress for the weather, for sure, because we do it in all weather. If it’s raining, bring your rain gear,” Muchowski advised. Partial-day participants can also be accommodated. Muchowski requests that all parties contact her to RSVP.
At the end of the day, the birders regroup at a dry, warm locale, to tally the data. Muchowski, as Altacal’s “compiler,” the NAS term for a local CBC organizer, must then “tally up all the bird species we got and put it up in the gigantic Audubon database.” Last year, 29 volunteers tallied 31,908 birds across the Chico counting circle—126 different species of birds overall. The American Robin was the most common, with more than 5,000 of them spotted or heard around Chico, followed by the Brewer’s Blackbird, the European Starling, and the Northern Shoveler, a common duck with a shovel-shaped bill.
The gathered group goes through the provided bird list, listing the common birds first. Many of them wait until the end to share the rarer sightings.
“The best birds aren’t on the main list, and everyone will try to top each other on what [was] the best bird,” Muchowski said. Last year, a California Thrasher, a medium-sized songbird with a long, down-curved beak, an American Bittern, a large brown bird related to the heron, and a Western Screech Owl were a few of the “interesting” species sighted.
Perhaps it’s the possibility of a rare-bird sighting that drives people to join in. Or, it may be just a chance to gather with other birding addicts. “In an online CBC survey last year, most participants said they participated in CBCs for five to 20 years—the number of respondents for this category was over 1,000. The next highest category was 21 to 49 years—with over 800 respondents!” Muchowski offered. She noted that CBC participants are not only typically multi-year participants, but oftentimes attend more than one count per year. “We try and schedule it so it’s not competing with other bird counts locally,” Muchowski said. “I’ve done seven counts in one year, one time. I’m going to try to do three this year.”
Information collected during CBCs can prove crucial to determining how an avian species is faring. “The data collected by observers over the past century allow researchers, conservation biologists, and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America,” states the NAS website. In the 1980s, CBC data documented the decline of the American Black Duck, which consequently led to conservation measures. More recently, the data has provided a large-scale understanding of the effects of climate change on winter migrations. It also helps local chapters understand their own region’s changes.
“Over the years, you can see the pattern, regardless of what the weather was. It’s that big of a data set,” Muchowski said.