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The Christmas Bird Count is upon us! From Dec. 14 til Jan. 5, birders of all stripes will be participating in one of the longest running “citizen science” projects in the world. For the uninitiated: “citizen science” generally refers to scientific research where data collection or analysis is dispersed amongst many volunteers (usually amateurs and hobbyists). In the case of the Christmas Bird Count (CBC), teams of ten or more volunteers systematically count every bird they see in a designated 15-mile diameter circle. This is the 115th year that the event has taken place. It now includes tens of thousands of volunteers, of all ages and levels of experience.

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Although one of the longest running citizen science projects, the CBC is not the first. This article from 1885 details an earlier project initiated by the American Ornithologists’ Union which invited lighthouse keepers to keep track of a variety of in-depth, qualitative data, such as: “If a mountain intercepts the line of flight, what kinds of birds pass around it, and what kinds pass over it?” And not only were strict counts and textual descriptions welcome, but also more…organic evidence: “A large number of the heads and wings of birds which dash themselves against the lights have been sent to the Chairman for identification.” Volunteers were also asked about local winds and weather, and the timing of other seasonal phenomena, such as first frog and toad appearances in the spring, and the dates at which mammals emerged from hibernation.

The ethic of volunteerism and amateurism was paramount, though, even in these early efforts: “Those who know only the commonest birds, such as the Robin, Bluebird, Bobolink, Martin, Hummingbird, and Chimney Swift, can furnish important data, and their services are eagerly sought.” Women were also encouraged to take part—”very excellent observers they make”—and at least twenty-five women did so in the project’s first year. In spite of this openness and enthusiasm, the American Ornithologists’ Union encountered obstacles with its early foray into citizen science, not because of lack of enthusiasm, but due to lack of money necessary to manage and process such a large quantity of rich data: “The amount of material now on hand is so great that the Committee cannot hope to fully elaborate it without considerable pecuniary assistance.”

So while it could be argued that the data collected by volunteers during the 1880’s was substantive, even elaborate, these early dispersed efforts were certainly less convenient to orchestrate, standardize, and tabulate than those in recent years. This is largely due to new technology and connectivity, for example, folks participating in the Christmas Bird Count this year can efficiently keep track of their counts through eBird, a web interface developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In some ways, what has been lost in individual, textual detail has been gained in the potential for aggregate meaning.

If you’re curious about participating in citizen science, or just want an excuse to “tweet” about the different tweets you see and hear everyday, the Cornell Lab and the National Audubon Society have initiated a number of other bird-related citizen science projects, including the Great Backyard Bird Count which is coming up in February. These counts can be free, fun, community-building activities with real impact (and bingo cards!) The “canary in the coal mine” writ large, this information tells us about the long-term health of bird populations, and can hint at larger environmental shifts and threats. Plus, in order to conserve bird species, we have to know where they are. Maybe a little bird can tell you 🙂



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The Auk, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Jan., 1885), pp. 53-65
American Ornithologists' Union