Yuletide Citizen Science

By Rob and Maria

We woke up to pouring rain outside. It was still dark. The sun wouldn’t rise for another 90 minutes or so, but we probably wouldn’t notice right away through the heavy clouds anyway. Ah well, the rain might dampen the ground, but not our spirits! Today was our Christmas Bird Count, and science stops for no rain! We just pulled on layers of leggings, wool socks, thermal shirts, and flannel, topped with rain jackets and rain pants. It was time to count some birds!

northern cardinal usfws

Northern cardinal, USFWS photo

What were we up to, exactly? The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count is the longest-running citizen science effort in the world. Every year between December 14 and January 5, regional Audubon chapters across North America organize tens of thousands of volunteers to participate in thousands of community-level birding events across North America—an effort collectively dubbed the Christmas Bird Count. The goal of these bird counts is simple: document every bird that you see on your assigned birding route. Birders, scientists, and nature enthusiasts of all backgrounds and experience levels are encouraged to participate—the more eyes on the sky the better! Last year’s CBC set a record for the number of participating counters at 76,987! (And as a quick shout-out to our local Audubon of Western Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh-area bird counts have one of the top fifteen highest number of participants of US cities, though we are a long shot from being the most populous! Way to go, Steel City!)


Chickadee, photo by USFWS

You may be wondering what birds we’re looking for, since many of our local songbirds are neotropical migrants (ahh, to head to the Caribbean or South America for the winter!) During the Christmas Bird Count, we document the year-round residents and, honestly, some Canadian birds whose idea of flying south for the winter is to head to Pennsylvania. We only recently learned from our local Audubon chapter education director that the robins we’re seeing right now are actually Canadian robins—whodathunk! Overall, during our counts, we tend to see chickadees, juncos, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, woodpeckers, bluebirds, kinglets, blue jays, cardinals, crows, and various sparrow species. We’ve seen juvenile bald eagles on a few counts now, and we generally see red-tailed hawks. (Oddly enough, not this year—we just heard a blue jay vaguely mimicking a red-tail.) This year, we even saw a Cooper’s hawk in flight, though it took a minute to decide whether it was a Cooper’s or a sharp-shinned hawk (aka, a “sharpie.”) When we’re near a lake or a river, we also generally see Canada geese and some combination of ducks.

right coopers and left sharpie

The Audubon had to help. Sharpie is on the left, Cooper’s on the right.

Why does it matter what we find in the middle of winter? It actually matters quite a bit! The Audubon Society now has over a century of data on the presence and absence of wintering birds, and this can tell us quite a lot about different species. Just check out this list of publications that have used bird count data! Through birding data, population declines have been identified and changes in wintering distribution ranges have also been noted. Also anyone who is on the Audubon’s email list can tell you, the organization is very concerned about climate change, and with good reason! They have literally decades of data that is telling them that nearly 70% of North America’s bird species are moving northward at a rate consistent with what we might expect from climate change. (As an aside, if you don’t believe what politicians have to say about climate change, I don’t blame you; they’re not exactly beacons of honesty. But trust the bird nerds. Even before the Audubon Society, birding enthusiasts have been watching over our feathered friends for centuries and they have no reason to lie to you about what they are seeing now.)

2017 face

From the 2017 CBC: our faces when we think about climate change…

We mentioned earlier that the Christmas Bird Count is the longest-running citizen science effort in the world, which makes it a fantastic achievement all on its own, but its history is also inspiring. First begun in 1900, these bird counts evolved from…uh…let’s just say a less positive outdoor tradition. In the late nineteenth century, it was fashionable for men on Christmas Day to divide up into teams and try to hunt as many creatures, furred and feathered, as possible, each team hoping of course to hunt more than the other team. This “sport” was as wasteful as it was pointless; the hunted carcasses weren’t even used for food. They were simply discarded after tallying. Around this time, early conservationists had already begun noticing humans’ pattern of destruction in nature. For example, passenger pigeons, a species that numbered in the billions when European immigrants first arrived in America, were decimated in the wild by 1901. Hunted to extinction. Noticing that society was well on its way to more unnecessary devastation of wildlife, an Audubon Society member named Frank Chapman suggested an alternative to annual Yuletide slaughter. Instead of killing as many birds and other animals as possible, why not count them?

And thus, a really dang cool tradition started.

tufted titmouse usfws

Tufted titmouse, USFWS photo

If you’re thinking to yourself that you would like to get involved in a Christmas Bird Count, but you’re worried you don’t have the experience necessary, don’t let that stop you! The Audubon has fantastic walk leaders, and you can learn from them. We’ve been tagging along with Maria’s former doctoral advisor for years, and there is always something new to learn! Always a journey.

Plus, as you can see from a few fun pics below, there are plenty of intriguing things to see besides the birds while you’re out and about. So give a Christmas Bird Count a try sometime! It’s a great way to keep exploring and keep learning.

praying mantis egg case

Praying mantis egg mass. Maria counted ten of these!


Most likely the nut of a pignut, a type of hickory.


Another hickory nut, Maria’s guess was a shagbark hickory.


Some sort of shelf fungi…beautiful isn’t it?


Another unknown fungus, ID ideas?


The biggest area of equisetum growth I’ve ever seen! It’s gorgeous, but has a prehistoric feel.

rob and group

Rain or shine, birds must be counted!

maria binoculars

Was that a downy or a hairy woodpecker?

deer scat

If you don’t find deer scat, are you even birding in Western PA?



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