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The Christmas Bird Count is back. Why it's increasingly important

cardinal perched on a metal bar with one leg raised as if raising hand to be counted
Bruce Janstrow
The annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count runs Dec. 14 through Jan. 5, 2023.

Bird populations in the USA are reaching a bleak "tipping point," according to the 2022 State of the Birds report. The annual Christmas bird count helps inform that reporting. It begins Dec. 14.

Three billion birds — 1 in 4 breeding birds — have disappeared from the U.S. and Canada in the last 50 years. Some 70 species considered on a tipping point "have collectively lost two-thirds of their populations in the past 50 years, and are on track to lose another 50% in the next 50 years,"according to the report. In fact, waterfowl are the only segment to show a comeback, which the report suggests is thanks to "the power of funding and policy investments."

The Audubon's annual Christmas Bird Count, now in its 123rd year, is the nation's longest running community science bird project.

"It is the largest citizen science project in the world. At this time of year, it's done all over the world," notes Larry Gersbach, past president ofMiami Valley Audubon in Oxford and chairman of the chapter's Christmas Bird Count. "This is used to determine — because of climate change or other things — the state of birds in the world; the migration of birds in the world."

How it works

The bird count is just about what it sounds like. People gather at a set time and date — this year it runs from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5, 2023 — and count as many wild birds as they can find within a defined area. Those results are reported to the national organization for analysis.

"All of this information is compiled and it really does give a look at the distribution of birds during the winter months — where they are and their numbers — and from that you can glean increases and declines through the years," says Jay Stenger, Cincinnati Christmas Bird Count compiler and chapter treasurer. "It's a tremendous source of information that can be used for research, and is used for research and all sorts of different reasons."

While some birds, like bald eagles and wild turkeys, have done well locally, other birds have noticeably declined.

"Particularly migratory birds that have to go South and winter in Central America and things like that — they're a bit on the decline because of habitat loss. That's the biggest thing: habitat loss," Stenger says. "And we see development is just ongoing and doesn't seem to stop, so that's the importance for green spaces. We need to preserve green space."

"It is a one day project. It is a great way to get out and take a nice walk on a crisp winter morning and be with like-minded people," Gersbach explains. "We gather and go out at the break of dawn, and then we gather at noon and have a potluck lunch. It's a great social outing (as well as) doing something for science."

Stenger, too, likes the sense of camaraderie that comes from participating in the annual count. While he leads one bird count, his son organizers another one in a different part of town. Count areas represent a 15-mile diameter area and cannot overlap. Participants must be part of an approved count to submit results.

The count in Oxford takes place Dec. 17. Cincinnati's Audubon chapter also has several dates planned to cover its reporting area. There are also counts across Southern Ohio and in Richmond, Ind.

You can track bird populations over time with the Audubon's "Where have all the birds gone" trend viewer.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.