Richard Crossley on the Christmas Bird Count

Think Christmas, Hannukah, and New Year’s Eve are enough to celebrate in December? Here’s one more family and friends get-together to add to the list — the Christmas Bird Count. I am a new birder and this is the first year I have been aware of the CBC so I asked Richard Crossley if he would answer a few questions. Read on to learn more about the CBC and how Richard’s count went this year.


Richard will be on Science Friday this week to discuss the CBC with host Ira Flatow and a nation-wide NPR audience. Check local your local NPR affiliate for the air time and tune in.


Richard, at this time of year we start hearing about the Christmas Bird Count. What is it?
The National Audubon started the CBC in 1900 in New York (Central Park I believe). The first one for my backyard, Cape May, was only 3 years later in 1903. It sounds amazingly simple, but the goal of the program is to have tens of thousands of volunteers literally count birds around Christmas time. For many this has now become an annual family tradition spanning many generations.

Do you have a sense of how many people participate in the CBC?
Well last year there were over 2200 groups reporting in and they saw over 60 million birds according to National Audubon. This year, the counts will take place until Jan 5th. Our patch, Cape May County, did ours on Sunday. There were 62 participants and we counted 152 species. The best birds I had were Rufous Hummingbird and Bells Vireo – both lingering rarities.

Is the CBC purely a collaborative venture or do teams compete with each other to find the most species?
It is a collaborative venture. Having said that there is clearly a little friendly rivalry within and between counts. There is often a meeting in the evening where most of the records are compiled and ‘war stories’ are swapped. Often people will try to find the rarest bird and announce it at the get together – all in good spirit of course. Neighboring districts will often try to have the higher counts. The most frequently heard comparisons are with the previous year and the previous high count for that territory. Friends on the west coast will send their results over to us, especially if there’s a goodie or a high count, they like to have bragging rights.

Who collects all this data and what do they do with it?
The Audubon takes all those reports from around the country and posts the data on their site (ed. note you can actually look up the figures by year or by bird here: The beauty of the CBC is that it creates an annual snapshot of bird populations. Comparing this data year to year reveals trends in bird populations which is absolutely invaluable information for scientists and conservationists working on conservation issues. The earliest CBC counts are some of the best data we have on bird populations in the early twentieth century.

How can someone participate in the CBC? Do they have to be in an Audubon club?
Anyone can join, the count gets published with your name if you give a $5 donation, all in a great cause. Each area has its own coordinator who collects all the records.

You are originally from the UK. Is there a CBC there, too?
In Britain, there is a bird count for one day each year in winter, conducted by the RSPB and asks folks to look in their gardens for one hour. This has been ongoing for 25 years. Back in my day, when I lived in the UK the breeding bird census was the big census event. I remember spending days trying to find and count all the breeding birds in a relatively large area – I suppose I was a bit younger back then! Bird Population trends in Britain have changed even more dramatically in recent decades than here and so reinforces the importance of all of these counts, whatever the time of year. Certainly, an annual breeding survey on the same scale as the annual Christmas count would have a huge conservation impact.

Do you have a final word for people who are considering being part of the CBC?
Yes—do it. It’s a great way to get outdoors with your family and friends and inspire them to look for and count birds. Plus, you’re making an important contribution to bird conservation efforts so you can feel good about it too. Doing the CBC helps keep you young, as evidenced especially by Alan Brady. who has done it since he was 12 years old and is now 92. He has been doing the count for 80 years and still drives down for the event from Pennsylvania. If that isn’t what legends are made of, I don’t know what is!