In the late nineteenth century, a popular Christmas day activity was participating in a “side hunt,” a competition to see which team of hunters could slaughter as much wildlife as possible. In 1900, Frank Chapman, a concerned naturalist, proposed an alternative. Instead of shooting birds and other animals, why not have teams compete to see how many species of birds they could identify. The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was born. 

The Plumbeous vireo is a rare bird that we hope to see on the count. One is wintering at Chase Palm Park | Credit: Hugh Ranson

That first count had a total of 27 teams participate, but soon the event, then known as “The Christmas Bird Census,” grew in popularity, and so Chapman decided to standardize the proceedings. Count circles were formed with a diameter of 15 miles. There are currently over 2,600 count circles in the world, with 1,992 of them across the United States. After humble beginnings, the count now draws more than 80,000 participants, and is a great example of citizen science in action.

Besides getting people out in the field, there are two main goals to the count: first and foremost, it is a great way to see how our wintering bird populations are doing. Unsurprisingly, many species are in steep decline, some are holding their own, and a few are actually increasing. A summary of last year’s count can be found here.

The second goal is to see which count circle can tally the most species. For most this a lighthearted contest, but some birders take this rivalry quite seriously. To this end, much scouting takes place before count day in order to locate areas where rare birds might be wintering. The Santa Barbara CBC always does very well because of the great variety of habitats to be found within the count circle. We also attract many out-of-town birders to help with the effort. The SBCBC usually tallies over 200 species, often finishing in the top three in California. We have even taken top place in the nation, but not in recent years. That honor invariably goes to the Mad Island Marsh count in South Texas. Their high count is 229 species.

This year, our count will be held on December 31, and for the first time since the COVID pandemic began, birders will be able to gather at the end of the day for a meal and a chance to tally the day’s total. For more information, check out Santa Barbara Audubon’s excellent website.

This winter wren, only the third to be recorded in our county, is currently being seen along Arroyo Burro Creek, and we hope it will stick around for the count. | Credit: Hugh Ranson

Here you can find information not only about the four other counts that take place in our county, but also the conservation efforts undertaken by our local Audubon chapter. Under the Activities tab, there is information about upcoming field trips and twice-monthly Friday bird walks. If you are not ready to participate in the CBC, you might want to check out a Friday bird walk. Most of us who got into the rewarding pastime of birding had a lot of help along the way. As a boy I went on many outings with the local naturalists group and received much encouragement. Only then did I feel confident enough to strike out on my own. If you would like to develop your interest in birds, group outings are a great place to begin.

One local birding legend who taught innumerable fledging birders in her bird classes is the estimable Joan Lentz. She also took on the herculean task of organizing the Christmas Bird Count for many years, and her enthusiasm was always contagious. Joan has recently penned a new book about her birding adventures, Birding Against All Odds. She’s having a low-key book signing event at Tecelote Book Shop from 2-3 p.m. on Saturday, December 17. Books are also available on Amazon, at Chaucer’s, and at Tecelote. This could make the perfect gift for the budding birder in your life.

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