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Christmas Bird Counts

Photo by Sheryl DeVore

Beginning and advanced birders contribute to science while getting fresh winter air

by Sheryl DeVore

For birdwatchers, Christmas season lasts from December 14 through January 5. That’s when Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) are held throughout the Chicago region, the state, the nation and many other parts of the world. Dressed in layers to keep warm, hundreds of Chicago area residents enjoy this special time of year. They get out in the woods, fields and along the lakefront to share a love for the outdoors and to contribute to science.

Those that have led and participated in Christmas Bird Counts over the years say it’s also the perfect chance for beginning birdwatchers to get their feet wet or get good use out of their snow boots to learn about the feathered creatures of winter.

In the Chicago region, beginning birders can be overwhelmed by the diversity of birds in May and September, says Josh Engel, a science affiliate at The Field Museum who has been attending Christmas Bird Counts since he was a teenager and owns Red Hill Birding. But in winter, during Christmas Bird Counts there are fewer bird species present, and that gives them a chance to learn at a slower pace, Engel explains. “Most all Christmas Bird Counts welcome new birders,” Engel says. “Compilers of the count can put a beginning birder in touch with someone they can join in their area.”

He typically does the Chicago lakefront count, always held on Christmas Day, the Evanston North Shorebird count, held sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and another in southwest Wisconsin. A Waukegan Christmas Bird Count is always held on January 1. Other counts in the region are set annually on select days during the Christmas Bird Count period.

“I love being out on Christmas Day on the Chicago lakefront,” Engel says. “It’s very quiet and there are very few people.” Joining others, he counts ducks and gulls on the lake, as well as inland birds such as black-capped chickadees and dark-eyed juncos, both commonly seen on Christmas Bird Counts. The chickadee is a year-round bird in the region; juncos spend winters here.

The Christmas Bird Count may be the longest-running citizen science survey in the world. It began 120 years ago when Frank Chapman, a scientist and National Audubon Society member, suggested counting birds during the holidays instead of hunting them, which was then the norm. Chapman began the first Christmas Bird Count on December 25, 1900.

Over the years, 15-mile-wide count circles have been set up in states and countries. Volunteers count every bird they hear or see within 24 hours in their assigned circle. They record data and give it to compilers that send it to the National Audubon Society. When combined with other surveys, the count provides a picture of how the continent’s bird populations have changed in time. Each person, beginner or advanced birder alike, that counts contributes to that data set.

Tamima Itani began watching birds in her Chicago backyard several years ago. On Christmas Day 2016, she joined Engel and other experienced birders along the lakefront in Evanston for her first Christmas Bird Count. “While we were waiting for others to arrive, a gull flew by overhead and Josh immediately identified it as a herring gull,” Itani says. “I was bewildered he could do it from such a distance.” She asked him how he knew what it was, and Engel explained the two most common gulls in winter in the area are ring-billed gulls and herring gulls, and the larger ones are herring gulls.

“Christmas Bird Counts can be very eye-opening to beginning birders,” Engel says. They learn that more than one species of gulls exists, that they’re not all just seagulls, and that many kinds of ducks besides mallards, such as mergansers, can be found in open water.

Jeff Aufmann, a Cary resident who compiles the McHenry County Christmas Bird Count, says birders can see robins and bluebirds during the count. “People often don’t believe you,” he says. But those visiting trees and shrubs with lots of berries often find these birds on Christmas Bird Counts,” he says.

Engel notes, “We always have some crazy bird show up.” Once while counting birds on Navy Pier in Chicago, he noticed some sparrows eating crumbs. “Strutting by the sparrows was an ovenbird,” Engel recalls. “That time of year, an ovenbird should be in Belize or Costa Rica. They winter in a tropical environment. They’re insectivores, they eat exclusively insects.”

Those that don’t known an ovenbird from a sparrow can help on bird counts by volunteering to serve as a scribe, says Aufmann. “A lot of people are shy to sign up,” he says. “But they don’t have to know all the birds. If they want to learn, they can just tag along and take notes.”

And though some hardcore birders like Aufmann get up before dawn to search for owls and continue through the whole day counting birds until dark, it doesn’t have to be as rigorous as that. “You can just cruise through neighborhoods and see what’s at people’s bird feeders. You don’t have to go out the whole day if you don’t want,” he says.

Engel says those that count birds are documenting rises and declines in certain species. “Overall, the trend is showing birds are wintering farther and farther north all the time,” he says. “It’s a sign of a warming climate, and the long-term data gathered on the Christmas Bird Counts can document that.”

Christmas Bird Counts also have documented the fall and subsequent rise in population of bald eagles, which were once on the federally endangered species list. The banning of DDT helped the eagles and populations of other birds of prey bounce back.

After the count, birders meet at homes or restaurants to reveal what they documented. “We have fun talking about what we saw, having some snacks and a couple of beers,” Aufmann says.

Engel says he enjoys birding and chatting with people he hasn’t seen since the last CBC, as well as meeting new birders. “The CBC is a great chance to meet other like-minded people and to enjoy a wonderful wintertime tradition,” he says. “It’s a great chance to force yourself to get outside. I never regret it, no matter how cold I get.”

Sheryl DeVore has written six books on science, health and nature. She also writes nature, health and environment stories for national and regional publications.

Image by Sheryl DeVore

Join a Christmas Bird Count

Christmas Bird Counts are scheduled from December 14 through January 5, 2020, in the Chicago region. For a list of counts and contact information, visit

 Here are some tips to enjoy the count:

  • Dress in layers for warmth.
  • Wear sturdy boots.
  • Bring water and snacks.
  • Be on time and at the designated place assigned by the compiler.
  • Bring a birding book, notebook and pen.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions or point out a bird for identification.