Christmas Counts: a somewhat personal history


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The hundred-twenty-year history of Christmas Bird Counts has incorporated an interestingly intertwined connectivity between the event’s beginnings, Ecuador, the bringing together of people and birds throughout the Americas… and me.

Simply explained, the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is a census (a counting) of wild bird species that takes place each year throughout the Western Hemisphere, during the boreal (northern hemisphere’s) winter. This endeavor is organized by the U.S. National Audubon Society and carried out by local volunteer birdwatchers. The idea is to recruit popular recreation in order to ultimately provide avian population data to be used in science. The CBC has become the world’s longest-running citizen science survey involving thousands of people, now across many countries.

My first CBC participation became the game-changer for me in several ways. I was 16 years old at the time, had been a bird watcher of sorts for some ten years already, mainly sharing the ‘fun’ exclusively with my older brother and our father who often accompanied us on our early outings.

Although we had met a few other birders over the years back in those days, up until that point I think our entire experience had been a very personal activity and we did not really share our joy for the natural world with anyone else in particular.

A Christmas count to remember

Then, came that incredible life-altering opportunity… somehow arranged by my brother. He happened to be the classmate, at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, of the son of world-famous ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson! As it turned out, we were invited to spend the weekend at Mr. Peterson’s home to participate with him in that year’s local Christmas Count.

That thrilling experience brought-home for the first time the deep understanding that observing birds is far more than just a pastime, or a mere hobby… But rather, it embodies an important, inspirational, transformative, cathartic, revitalizing… mind-blowing quest to be-at-one with nature… with our Universe… and at the same time, holds a certain degree of responsibility.

But perhaps I’m getting a little ahead of myself… All of this was the pioneering brainchild of another ornithologist, Dr. Frank Chapman, in the year 1900, who along with a handful of like-minded friends decided to offer a bird-friendly alternative to the horrific yearly popular tradition of killing as many birds (and other animals) as possible on Christmas Day throughout the United States.

The first Christmas Bird Census involved 27 participants, doing 25 different counts on a single day, which in-all tallied 90 species of birds… we’ve come a long way since that initial ‘experiment’, with over 2000 count circles in existence to date throughout the Americas!

Christmas Counts set out to tally up every species and every individual of each species seen.

This is how it works—each Christmas Bird Count is conducted within an established 24-kilometer (15-mile) diameter circle, over a single (24-hour period) day, which is chosen locally, from between the 14th of December and the 5th of January. Each circle is registered with the U.S. National Audubon Society, and its respective count is organized and administered locally by a birding club, community or NGO.

The volunteer counters organize their effort within their respective circle, following specified routes along which every bird seen or heard is tallied—every individual of every species—to come up with the total number of bird species recorded during that chosen day. That information is thus turned in and compiled by Audubon for their records.

Dr. Chapman, Ecuador, bird counts and me…

It turns out that in 1926, the same Dr. Chapman published, through New York’s American Museum of Natural History, the first treatise on Ecuador’s birds—titled “The Distribution of Birdlife in Ecuador”. Small world, no? If that isn’t enough, it was that work that my ‘partner-in-crime’, Dr. Robert S. Ridgely, and I used as a baseline of data for our 20-year project to write “The Birds of Ecuador”, which was finally published in 2001.

Much of our research was done at… yes, the American Museum of Natural History (among other institutions). And it gets more intertwined. In 1993, at some point, Dr. Ridgely and I somehow began talking about Ecuadorian birds, Ecuadorian birders that were beginning to show up on the scene in interesting numbers, and Christmas Counts… and why not, taking the world record for Earth’s highest count at some point.

At that time, I had no idea—having then been living for over 20 years in Ecuador—that these Christmas Counts had already expanded beyond the borders of the United States into Mexico, Central, and South America. The idea came up, why not create Ecuador’s first count circle in this incredibly species-rich country. I quickly got to registering Ecuador’s first Christmas Count Circle—The Mindo-Tandayapa Count—for the December count in 1994. I was able to gather 25 enthusiastic counters for that ‘maiden voyage’ and we tallied up 226 species—which garnered an honorable 6th place on the World Stage!

Paul Greenfield sets out to watch some birds in the cloud forests of Ecuador’s Northwest, over 50 years after he first participated on his first Christmas count.

In the year 2000, the Mindo-Tandayapa Count took 1st place with 348 species tabulated! All eyes were on this small, inconspicuous country, but the accolades did not end there… Mindo continued to take first place in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 with high counts breaking the, what once seemed to be an impossible, 400 species mark.

By 2005, Mindo’s fame and example began to inspire new count circles to sprout in other areas of Ecuador—and one in particular, the Cosanga – Narupa Count (originally called Yanayacu) took the world record several years in a row — so Ecuador has dominated the world stage for well over a decade!

In 2016, Mindo did it again, retook 1st place with 456 species (though Cosanga-Narupa has registered the World Record at a staggering 490 species). To date, there are now over 20 CBC circles, all around the country, and surely more to come.

22 Ecuadorian count circles for the 120th Audubon Society’s Christmas Count

—Los Bancos-Milpe
—Chiles-Chical (Carchi)
—El Oro Parakeet, El Oro
—Galbula, Pastaza
—Yacuma Ecolodge
—Reserva Biológica Limoncocha
—Napo Amazon
—Chiro Apaica, Yasuní
—Tambococha Yasuní
—Shiripuno Lodge
—Cumandá, Chimborazo
—Simikim, Morona-Santiago
—Río Upano, Morona-Santiago
—Sucúa, Morona-Santiago
—Tinajillas-y Siete Iglesias, Morona-Santiago
—Runahurco-Gualaquiza, Morona-Santiago
—Tiwinza, Morona-Santiago


PH: Jorge Vinueza

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