What types of holiday traditions does your family have? In our household, trimming the tree is an all-in family activity requiring Santa hats and (when the Texas weather cooperates) mugs of hot cocoa. But for thousands of people around the country, tradition means one thing—getting out into nature and counting birds. Every year, more than 60,000 dedicated folks protect themselves against the cold and head out to the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. This annual event has been happening in various locations around the country for more than a century, making it the longest running wildlife census in the world.
The Nature Conservancy has been involved with the bird count for more than two decades. We just wrapped up our latest count, which featured a mix of veteran birders, amateur enthusiasts and curious beginners traipsing across our Clive Runnells Family Mad Island Marsh Preserve. The particulars of the Mad Island count vary a bit each year, but the activity always follows a familiar pattern. The action typically starts before daybreak—people gather as early as 4:00 a.m. to do a little night birding. That’s the only way to glimpse various types of owls and the elusive rail, a bird species common in wetland areas that tends to be more active at night. By truck, all-terrain vehicle and on foot, birders stretch out across the preserve, binoculars in hand and bird books at the ready. The birding lasts until sunset; the next day, everyone gathers again to swap stories and merge their data.
While incredibly fun, this weekend of citizen science is also critically important. According to the National Science Foundation, citizen scientists help “the scientific community unravel the mysteries of where Mother Nature is today and where she is headed.” The thousands who annually participate in these bird counts are boots on the ground, helping conservationists move the ball forward in small, but significant ways. The count at Mad Island, for example, has been named the most diverse count in the country for 15 of the last 16 years—birders there typically identify more than 200 different species in a single day. This wealth of data helps scientists understand the migratory patterns of certain species, which is especially important in the context of a changing climate. These dedicated Christmas birders help scientists piece together how birds are affected by conditions such as colder winters and prolonged drought.
Just as importantly, the tradition of Christmas bird counts reminds us of the magic of nature. Oftentimes, the conversation about our environment centers around the costs of nature, the benefits of it for our economy and our collective livelihood, but everyone has had an experience in nature that makes their skin tingle. Can you think back and remember the first time you saw a canopy of stars while peeking out of your tent? Or piled in the car with your siblings and parents for a family road trip? That magic is every bit as important as making sure we protect our natural resources.
Christmas bird counts offer up mystery, wonder and excitement–and a joyful reminder that there’s a place for all of us in nature.
Laura Huffman leads The Nature Conservancy‘s Urban Strategies Initiative and is state director of The Nature Conservancy in Texas.
Photo: A hermit thrush at Mad Island Marsh Preserve. © Rich Kostecke