A more-than-century-old tradition is still happening here in Atlanta and around the country right now, though with slightly less socializing this year.
The Christmas Bird Count – despite the name, it continues into the New Year – is a community science project that has a social aspect, too. That’s tamped down a bit because of the pandemic, but birders are still getting out to tally every bird they can find.
The project, which began in 1900, helps scientists see trends over time, such as how bird species are responding to climate change.
The first count was a substitute for Christmas bird hunts.
An ornithologist involved with the Audubon Society, concerned about declining bird populations, suggested something different.
“He said, ‘Hey, let’s go count them instead,’” said Adam Betuel, conservation director at Georgia Audubon.
Now, according to the Audubon Society, tens of thousands of volunteers participate each year, counting tens of millions of birds.
“It’s very useful for all sorts of population level science and conservation that’s going on,” Betuel said. “The real value in it is that it has been going on for so long, the fact that we have 121 years of data.”
The annual ritual is also something participants really look forward to.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Robyn Newman, who lives in Henry County. She participated for the third time this year.
Usually, she said, it’s pretty social.
“You know, you meet in the morning, get up at the crack of dawn, if not earlier, to go owling,” she said.
And then it’s a whole day, typically of people piling into cars, sharing equipment, eating lunch together – if they can put off the birding long enough to sit down – and then at the end of the day, a party to share counts.
That’s different this year.
Newman said on the count she participated in, people drove separately and the end-of-the-day party was over Zoom.
“But you’re still at least together birding,” she said. “Especially right now, with COVID, and the isolation that we’ve had, it was so much fun to be out with like-minded people again, doing something that you love and doing something for citizen science.”
The results so far this year are providing a better picture of an unusual number of some species in the area, including pine siskins and purple finches, and rarer birds like evening grosbeaks and common redpolls, Betuel said.
“Some years, we get zero of those birds,” he said. “And then this year, they’re all over the place, which is exciting.”
Betuel said he’s seen an uptick in interest in birds this year, with people cooped up at home getting more curious about the nature around them.
The final Christmas Bird Count in the Atlanta area is Jan. 3. In February, there’s another community bird-counting project, called the Great Backyard Bird Count.