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Annual Christmas Bird Count begins around the nation

Great Blue Heron hunkers in snow.jpg
Charles Martinez
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A Great Blue Heron hunkers in the snow during the Christmas Bird Count.

News brief

The National Audubon Society kicked off its annual bird count Wednesday — a program that helps experts understand how birds respond to climate change.

It was started in 1900 by ornithologist Frank M. Chapman in an effort to count birds instead of hunt them. Counts were held in 25 locations that day, and now, more than 100 years later, the Christmas Bird Count is still going. It’s billed as the longest-running community science bird project in the nation.

“The biggest goal is just to go out and essentially create a snapshot of bird populations in a kind of a controlled space,” said Keith Bruno, a community naturalist with the Audubon Rockies.

It’s open to the public, and participants are encouraged to count birds over the next three weeks in one of the pre-designated 15-mile circles. Volunteers receive details about the count from Audubon in advance and then go out in groups.

Birders Cover Ground in Pagosa Springs.jpg
Kristine Rubish
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Birders cover ground in Pagosa Springs for the 120th Christmas Bird Count.

“Some people are really good with their eyes, and some are really good with their ears,” Bruno said. “Some people are really good at taking pictures. The camera is a great tool because you can always freeze that image of the bird at that moment, maybe before you had the opportunity to identify it.”

He described it as a scavenger hunt for birds. The goal is not just to identify species — it’s also about counting how many birds are outside that day. The information is put into a database so it can be tracked across time.

Bruno said the camaraderie is something that makes this count special.

“People often pile into cars with hot coffee and hot tea thermoses and gloves and layers and scarves and binoculars and cameras,” he said. “It's funny and chaotic, but it's also so fun.

“All of a sudden, you've got a car that pulls the wheel over, and you're watching for Ferruginous hawk.”

Birders congregate at Lake Forest.jpg
Kristine Rubish
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Birders congregate at Lake Forest for the 119th Christmas Bird Count.

These counts have already provided insights into the long-term health and habits of birds in North America.

“They have found that nearly all birds have shifted their winter ranges in response to climate change,” Bruno said. “So there [are] some long-term trends that have picked up.

“You know, certain species are dealing with changes to their habitat in different ways. Some are adjusting and shifting their wintering habitat. Some are, you know, probably fewer in numbers.”

In Colorado, for example, there are changes in the types of birds present during the winter. Bruno lives in Pagosa Springs, and he’s noticed it, too.

“Last year, we had two Williamson’s Sapsuckers, which are woodpeckers, and we've never observed those in our count circle in the 12 years that Pagosa Springs has been conducting it,” Bruno said. “So that's interesting.

“Is that like a fluke? Maybe. Could it also be that Williamson’s Sapsucker is adjusting their winter range, and we'll start seeing them with more routine every winter? Possibly.”

The Audubon bird count runs until January 5. Bruno emphasized that the counting is important to the future of birds – even if it does not occur during the official event.

“Even if you're not posting anything to a citizen science platform, those observations matter because those are oftentimes things that we share among each other anecdotally,” he said. “That paints a picture of the natural world and in its health, for better or worse. And that's the only way that we can really begin to understand how things do change over time.”

If you are interested in participating, there are still some groups open. Find more details on the Audubon Society’s website.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I'm the Mountain West Reporter for KUNC, here to inform you of all the latest news affecting the Mountain West region. From new legislation to climate patterns to invasive species, I'll research what is happening in your backyard—as well as the backyards of neighboring states—and share those stories with you as you go about your day.