Wed. Nov 29th, 2023
Christmas Bird Count: Keep the Community Science Tradition Alive!

Today’s post comes from Cortney LeGros, Healthy Parks Healthy People Coordinator at Ontario Parks.

The Christmas season is full of tradition.

No matter how you celebrate, there is a scientific tradition that has been around for over 120 years to help celebrate the holidays.

For me, the holidays wouldn’t be complete without participating in at least one Christmas Bird Count.

For more than a decade, my tradition includes packing a thermos of hot chocolate to keep me warm in the early hours of dawn and stuffing too many Christmas snacks into my backpack.

(I usually drink my hot chocolate before we get to our first spot to chase away the morning chill.)

As we take turns leading the way, the warmth we were looking for finally begins to appear.

While I spend most of the day with a few people, the camaraderie that occurs during the final count is by far my favorite part. My tradition is to share dinners, stories, and recount the day’s bird sightings with people who get together once a year!

So what exactly is A Christmas Bird Count, Who Counts the Birds and Why is Counting So Important?

An introduction to Christmas bird counting

Since 1900, the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) has been held on one day between December 13 and January 5 in thousands of locations across North America.

Last year, there were over 450 counts, with over 15,000 volunteers in Canada alone!

It all started as a Christmas hunting tradition known as the Christmas “Side Hunt,” where feathered and furred animals alike were shot.

bird counting circle map

As scientists became more concerned about declining bird populations, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed a new tradition: a “Christmas Bird Census.”

Instead of hunting birds, he proposed counting them.

Since that Christmas Day in 1900, bird counts have been conducted throughout North America to monitor the health and long-term status of bird populations.

two people watching birds

Each selected area is called a “counting circle.” It is a circle 24 kilometers in diameter that remains the same year after year.

Observers spend most of the day counting all the birds they see in one part of the circle or setting up a count at a bird feeder station. The data is then sent to the compiler, the person responsible for accounting and submitting all records for your circle.

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Importance of data

Besides going out for a refreshing walk and meeting up with old friends, why is the Christmas bird count so important?

Data collected by volunteer observers over the past century has allowed researchers and organizations like Ontario Parks to learn about the long-term health and status of bird populations.

staff bird watching

These long-term data sets inform management decisions that help protect birds and their habitats. We have learned a lot about population trends and have been able to make important decisions that affect the health of birds and the health of our parks.

Consider what we have learned by counting the following species:

1. Bald Eagle

Bald eagle

Once upon a time, seeing a bald eagle was extremely rare.

A variety of factors, such as habitat loss, hunting, and the use of certain pesticides, caused the bald eagle population to plummet. In 1970, there were fewer than 10 breeding pairs of bald eagles in Ontario.

The greatest population decline occurred with the use of DDT, which resulted in thin eggshells that broke when attended to by adults. The use of DDT was phased out in Canada in the mid-1980s and bald eagle populations began to recover.

Bald eagle

There are currently an estimated 1,400 breeding pairs in Ontario.

Thanks to the efforts of Christmas Bird Count volunteers, we have accurate data on the wintering population and distribution of these majestic birds.

This information helps inform management decisions, such as protecting important overwintering habitats.

2. Winter finches

Evening Grosbeak

We are often asked, “Where did all the birds at my feeder go?”

One year the feeders seem to be overrun with finches, and the next year they have virtually disappeared. So are these birds in decline?

In fact, winter finches, such as

  • Grosbeak pine
  • purple finch
  • common redpoll
  • gray-haired redpoll
  • pine goldfinch
  • White-winged Crossbill
  • red crossbill
  • Evening Grosbeak

They are known as “irruptive species”. An irruption occurs when large numbers of birds migrate further south than normal, often in search of food.

There are a variety of factors that can help predict an irruption year, and there is an entire network dedicated to making a winter finch forecast.

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Using a community science network, volunteers collect a variety of data, including the presence of tree cone crops in summer, which helps contribute to a prediction of how many, what types and where the finches might overwinter.

male purple finch

Finch irruptions can help us determine and protect the health of our forests.

Tree species produce different seed crops from year to year and from place to place. However, things like climate change can affect these cycles, with extreme events such as early or late frosts, wet years or drought years, and insect and disease outbreaks.

Monitoring the number of finches not only in Ontario, but across the country, will help us understand the population numbers of these species, as well as their unique migratory patterns.

Health benefits of bird watching

There are many benefits to participating in a Christmas Bird Count, from participating in park management and contributing data to support management and conservation decisions to the personal health benefits that come with time spent in nature.

snowshoe person

Bird watching is beneficial not only for our own mind and body, but it also helps create healthy parks. Check out this blog to learn more about the health benefits of bird watching!

Who can participate?

Volunteers are essential for the Christmas Bird Count!

Counts are usually a group effort and are organized locally by nature clubs or bird watching groups.

Each year, thousands of volunteers bundle up in warm layers to participate in the data collection effort across North America.

group bird watching

Looking for some tips on how to stay warm? Check out this winterization guide!

Here in Ontario, there are over 100 counts involving almost 4,000 volunteers. Many counts are organized by Friends groups and local nature groups, and some counts are organized by park staff.

snow bunting

Several counting circles overlap the park boundaries, and Ontario Parks is proud to support the work of many local volunteer organizations.

Here are some counts taking place in and around the parks:


The data collected would not be possible without the dedication of organizers, compilers and volunteers like you.

If you’re interested in making bird counting part of your Christmas tradition, visit Birds Canada to find a count near you.

boreal tit

Contact the compiler listed in your counting circle to find out how you can participate.

You don’t need to be an expert bird watcher!

There are some great resources available to help you discover bird watching.

What are you waiting for? Get involved today!