By Paula Musto
Christmas! Time for festive decorations, holiday baking and presents under the tree. And, for bird enthusiasts, it’s also time for the Christmas Bird Count, a tradition that has been around for more than a century with participants throughout North, South and Central America, the Caribbean and Pacific Islands.
In Asheville, diehard birders and novices alike will again join the legions of Christmas bird counters—there were nearly 2,000 events in the US alone last year—to brave chilly weather and take stock of our overwintering birds. In 2019, Asheville birders counted 69 species and 5,010 birds off of Highway 70 near Swannanoa.
“The Christmas Bird Count is the oldest field science project in the world,” says Tom Tribble, past president of the Blue Ridge Audubon, a chapter of the National Audubon Society. Tribble is in charge of organizing Asheville’s participation in the count, which will be held sometime between December 14 and January 5.
The count is conducted in designated circles 15 miles in diameter with the purpose of finding and counting as many individual birds as possible in a 24-hour time frame. Counters either drive or walk their assigned area in two or four-member teams equipped with binoculars, telescopes and clipboards.
“It is citizen science at its best,” Tribble says. “While not a rigorous scientific study, the data from the Christmas Bird Count, conducted by ordinary citizens, contributes valuable information that helps the scientific community detect trends in the bird world.”
The Christmas Bird Count began in 1905 as an alternative to another holiday tradition: the side hunt. Fairly common until the early part of the 20th century, the much-celebrated hunt involved a Christmas morning trek outdoors when revelers would compete to shoot every bird in sight. “It was a sport,” Tribble says. “A thousand or more birds might be killed in a single outing—whether the hunters planned to eat them or not.”
The early ornithologist Frank Chapman, founder of Bird-Lore which later became Audubon magazine, proposed an alternative to the slaughter; he suggested that sporting families keep the Christmas Day tradition, but count—rather than kill—the feathered wildlife. For more than a hundred years now, the count, sponsored by the National Audubon Society, has remained a popular holiday event.
“Much of what we know about winter bird populations comes from the Christmas count,” Tribble says, noting that Western North Carolina has a rich population of overwintering birds, both those who migrate here from points farther north and year-round residents. “The data helps us see which birds are increasing and which are declining.”
Worldwide, scientists are concerned about declining numbers. A recent study by the Audubon Society found that two-thirds of North American birds are at increased risk of extinction from global temperature rise and habitat loss.
“Due to climate change, birds may be forced to relocate to find favorable homes, and some may not survive,” says Appalachian Wildlife Refuge board member Carlton Burke, who each February participates in another popular wintertime count, the Great Backyard Bird Count.
While the Christmas Bird Count involves organized teams, mapping protocols and a daylong commitment, the Great Backyard Bird Count is an easy event that requires participants to simply count birds in their own backyard for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish). “It’s a good event for novices,” Burke says. “And, it can all be done online and without leaving your home.”
The event, associated with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, enlisted more than 160,000 participants last year, creating snapshots of bird populations around the world. The Cornell University lab, a leading global bird research institution, has developed a smartphone app, e-Bird, that allows birdwatchers to feed data directly into a database.
“It’s like having a Christmas Bird Count every day,” says Tribble. “Technology has made counting and identifying birds easier for novices and pros alike.”
Visit t to learn more about the Christmas Bird Count. Paula Musto is a writer and outreach volunteer for Appalachian Wild, a nonprofit whose mission is to help injured or orphaned wildlife, to support WNC’s wildlife rehabilitation network and to provide wildlife conservation education. Learn more at AppalachianWild.org.