Unexpected Gifts: What the Christmas Bird Count taught me about Science, Conservation, and Community


Hilary Cooke
Co-Director, Northern Boreal Mountains Program


Boreal birds



I stayed in my northern home of Whitehorse, Yukon this past holiday season.

It was the first of 41 years that I hadn't spent Christmas with family and, with no plans aside from Christmas dinner, I was feeling conflicted about spending it alone. I was, however, participating in the Christmas Bird Count and what I didn’t realize was the sense of community I would experience, and the impact the day would have on my perspective of the importance of citizen science for bird conservation in Canada.
Citizen science engages members of the public in the collection and/or interpretation of data. The power of citizen science comes from harnessing the collective effort of volunteers recording and sharing their observations of species, places, and events. As a field scientist, one of my biggest challenges is having the time and resources to cover a large geographic area and to collect long-term data. Both are highly valuable for answering questions about wildlife and ecosystems, and consequently for our ability to make informed decisions about wildlife management and conservation. Citizen science projects can reach across boundaries and decades, and the implications for science and conservation are tremendous.

In North America, two citizen science initiatives are critical for understanding the distribution, abundance, and long-term trends of bird populations: Christmas Bird Count (CBC) and Breeding Bird Survey (BBS). The CBC is the longest-running citizen science survey in the world. Started in the United States in 1900, it takes place annually between December 14th and January 5th. In 2013, 1,863 counts were conducted in the United States, 438 in Canada, and 107 in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Pacific Islands. In that year a record 71,659 observers participated, including 13,636 in Canada. Even more amazing are the count tallies: 66,243,371 individual birds were counted of 2,403 species! In Canada, just over three million individual birds were counted across 291 species. The North American BBS was initiated in 1966 by the United States Geological Service to collect long-term data on bird populations. Today, 500 40-km roadside routes are surveyed by 300 observers in Canada; 2,300 routes are surveyed across the United States. Long-term population trends are available for over 420 bird species.

Anyone that studies bird populations relies on this citizen science. CBC and BBS data have collectively been used in over 650 peer-reviewed scientific articles. Both are also used by government agencies to determine the health of bird populations. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) relies almost entirely on this information to determine whether a species should be recommended for listing as Endangered, Threatened, or of Special Concern. For example, the Rusty Blackbird, a species that breeds in boreal wetlands across Canada and Alaska, was assessed as a Species of Special Concern. BBS and CBC data suggest a decline of 85% of the total population since the mid-1960s. Knowing the conservation needs of species like the Rusty Blackbird guides my work on birds breeding in boreal wetlands in the Yukon.

Building networks of citizen scientists and gathering large amounts of citizen science data is increasingly easy, inexpensive, and accessible. A hallmark of citizen science projects today is that the data are free and can be explored by anyone using online mapping and graphing tools, which adds tremendous value for participants. For example, the eBird project compiles observations of thousands of birders globally, and provides a range of tools for exploring species maps, birding hotspots, migration arrival and departure dates, personal checklists, and even a real-time map of observers uploading bird sightings!

My first contribution to the global database of citizen science was the CBC on December 26th, 2014 – Boxing Day. My count area was my Whitehorse neighbourhood – a small treed suburban area adjacent to a forested green space. Luckily the day was not too cold, with a low temperature of -10C, but I still bundled up knowing I’d be outside for several hours. I started at my feeder where four Common Redpolls were feeding on nyjer seeds and several Black-capped Chickadees were chattering to each other. I wandered down my street recording three Common Ravens and two Black-billed Magpies in the first block. After 2.5 hours and 4 km on foot, my final count was 7 species: Common Raven (5-15 individuals), Gray Jay (4 individuals), Black-billed Magpie (6), Black-capped Chickadee (6), Boreal Chickadee (1), Pine Grosbeak (4), and Common Redpoll (37). Not a high count of species or individuals, or any unusual sightings, but with very little effort and quite a lot of enjoyment, I had just added a data point to a 114-year-long database!

After my lovely day counting birds at Christmas, I was curious whether other WCS scientists volunteer their time for non-WCS citizen science projects. An informal survey of a handful of colleagues working in North American programs identified 18 projects that eight people volunteer for annually. They participate because they know the value of citizen science to conservation and public outreach, particularly when it’s part of a widespread and long-term project. Most WCS scientists volunteer for bird surveys. However, they also volunteer to monitor odonates (dragonflies and damselflies), hemlock woolly adelgid (an introduced insect past that attacks hemlock), feral cats, and road kill! This eclectic list is just a glimpse into the diversity of citizen science projects across Canada and the United States. Today you can volunteer to collect information on everything from plant leaf-out (PlantWatch and National Phenology Network) to ice freeze up (IceWatch), from worms (WormWatch) to watersheds (Watershed Watch), and from bears and bobcats (eMammal) to bumblebees (Bumble Bee Watch), butterflies (eButterfly) and backyard birds (Great Backyard Bird Count)!

I also asked my WCS colleagues whether they have used citizen science in their work. For over 10 years, the WCS Adirondacks program has conducted the AdirondackLoon Census, an annual survey of Common Loons on 200 lakes by 500 volunteers. WCS Canada Arctic Scientist Steve Insley works with others to coordinate a community-based monitoring program, BeringWatch, which engages local citizens to record and track wildlife sightings and environmental events in the Bering Sea. In interior British Columbia, WCS Canada Conservation Scientist Cori Lausen is engaging the public to monitor bats in a project called Upside Down and Underground. Finally, WCS Conservation Scientist Sarah Reed works with local recreationists to use a smartphone app to track trail use and its impacts on reptiles and mammals in conservation reserves in San Diego county, California.

To my recollection, in the 17 years I have conducted field research on birds I have not contributed to a citizen science project. I certainly knew about them but for several reasons I had not gotten involved. In part the reason is because the BBS survey period overlaps with my field season and the CBC overlaps with holiday and family commitments. But I may have failed to contribute because I focused too much on the "science" part of citizen science, thinking that I don’t need to participate because I already contribute through my own research. Or, perhaps, I focused too much on the "citizen" part, with the misguided notion that these initiatives are for amateur biologists, not professional scientists.

Participating for the first time was a revelation. I learned that contributing to citizen science is an obligation I have as a scientist AND a citizen. As a trained ornithologist and conservation scientist, it is my obligation to contribute my expertise and time to the long-term data sets that are so critical for bird conservation. I learned that it can be incredibly inspiring to be part of the longest-running citizen science project in the world. I learned that participating in an international citizen science initiative gives me a tremendous amount of satisfaction. I learned about the collective power of globally-connected individuals. And, importantly this past holiday season, I learned that participating in the CBC brought me into the community of dedicated birders that are making a significant contribution as both scientists and citizens.

After my first personal experience with citizen science and doing background research for this blog, I revisited the question, why do people contribute their observations to citizen science? For people that enjoy watching wildlife and observing the natural world, why not just enjoy the observations personally? My conclusion is that it’s about belief in the power to make a difference – a feeling rare these days in the face of so many seemingly insurmountable environmental threats. It’s about believing in the power of information, knowledge, and science to make a difference. It’s about joining a community of citizens who care about the natural world, want to make a difference, and believe that collectively our observations and the science that emerges from them can affect our world positively. It’s about all of these things while doing something you love.

The day of the Whitehorse Christmas Bird Count ended with a social gathering at the home of one of the participants. Nearly 20 people gathered to compile the species list, share stories of the day, and drink mulled wine and cider. Before the evening was over I was recruited to return to the forest near my house to search for the resident Boreal Owl since no owls had been counted yet that day. When I went out again it was 10 pm and the weather had turned, with dropping temperatures and blowing snow but I suited up again and armed myself with a headlamp and a baggie of Christmas cookies. After a quick drive around the block from my house, I parked and started along a snowy trail into the forest. The snow that had been blowing across my line of sight while driving was falling more gently in front of my face after it passed through the forest canopy. I walked a few hundred metres into the forest and picked a spot to stand and listen under the snow-covered branches of a mature white spruce tree. The snow and winter night was a blanket of quiet. There were no owls calling, and no other birds moving. I was alone in the dark winter forest, but I still felt the warmth of connection to the birds and community of citizen scientists I had shared the day with. I may have spent this holiday season without family and close friends, but I did not spend it alone.

Interested in joining the citizen science movement? Start this weekend (February 13-16, 2015) with the Great Backyard Bird Count! Count the number and kinds of birds you see in any location for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count. For more information and to register online, go to gbbc.birdcount.org.

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