Cold winter weather means it's time for two important citizen science projects -- the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) and Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Project FeederWatch.
This year the 113th CBC runs from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5, 2013. Volunteers will devote one entire day to counting all the wild birds they can find. Local leaders determine the exact date for local counts.
It all began on Christmas Day 112 years ago when ornithologist Frank Chapman organized groups of birders to see who could identify, count, and record the most species. This first CBC was an alternative to Christmas holiday "side hunts." Prior to 1900, groups of hunters chose sides and competed to see who could kill the most game.
Wildlife conservation was in its infancy at the turn of the century; scientists and the general public were just beginning to notice and worry about declining bird populations. The CBC was one of the first attempts to engage the public in conservation, and it has become the longest-running citizen science program in the world. It's not an exaggeration to say that the first CBC marked the beginning of modern wildlife conservation.
Though skilled birders form the backbone of CBCs, beginners are always welcome. CBCs are a great way for first-time birders to learn how to identify birds in the field and make real contributions to science. And it's free.
CBCs provide a snapshot in time of winter bird populations. Information collected over many years is particularly valuable because it illuminates long-term trends. CBC data is frequently used in peer-reviewed scientific publications and has been used to link bird population declines to climate change.
Last year, 63,227 volunteers participated in 2,248 CBCs. Most took place in the U.S. (1,739) and Canada (410). The remaining 99 took place in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands. The highest species count came from Ecuador (492). Local counts typically range from 35 to 70 species, depending on weather conditions.
To participate in a CBC near you, contact your local Audubon Society or nature center. Or visit http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count and click on "Find a count near you."