The Christmas (Count) Myth

I’ve written a few posts I felt showed the negative side of birding and served no useful purpose. So they are still sitting out in cyberspace in draft form. I have debated posting this one because we all feel Christmas Bird Counts are good for Citizen Science. After two weeks of researching Birding Surveys on the internet I’m not sure anymore but I’ll post this anyway and let you decide.

This might be unholy but it’s sort of a myth Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) are great Citizen Science projects because it’s difficult to use them for scientific data – see page 10 of this link. Or the bottom of page 7 on this article.  And the same is true for eBird and the Big May Day. It’s true CBC are used as a source for long-term trends but the primary source is the NA Breeding Bird Survey (BBS). What’s the difference?

The BBS use a systematic approach and the CBC doesn’t.

I’m not a scientist but common sense tells me birders doing CBC’s and recording data in eBird don’t use a scientific approach each time. So how can the data be validated?

Think about it. CBC, Big May Day, or regular birding recorded in eBird are a result of people birding where they’ll find birds. With the limited time on those counts (eBird isn’t different because most people have limited time to bird) people go to birding Hotspots. There are no set routes or time limits, just people covering an area and reporting. And many of those people are only birding one time per year.

On your last CBC did you check the local mall for birds? No, you went to the local Hotspot since CBC and Big May Days are in essence Birding Big Days.

On the other hand, remember when I reported running BBS routes last summer how regimented they were and at times boring? Well that’s the point. To get a good representation of the total landscape, they measure the whole area, not just where people want to bird.

The BBS uses a systematic approach where you survey the same place each year for the same length of time on approximately the same date. And they cover the whole landscape, not just birding Hotspots. Research uses those repeatable counts to determine trends in bird distribution which hopefully lead to conservation efforts.

indiana-bbs-cbc-routes christmas (count) myth
Not my best cut and paste but it should demonstrate the BBS routes on the left covers most of Indiana whereas the CBC circles on the right are centered on cities and other birding Hotspots.

Not to say activities like CBC, eBird, and Big Days can’t be used for generalized long term trends. If you see a certain number of a species for a few years and twenty years later they are gone, that will show a problem.

About the only way to make CBC usable is to have set routes at set times making sure more advanced birders are teamed with beginners. But that probably means fewer birds would be seen. Which goes against the great thing about CBC’s, getting new people into birding.

I guess you can’t have it both ways.

I’m not saying not to participate in CBC since they are still useful for general long-term trends. But I like to know how things I participate in are being used.

So I’m signing up for more BBS routes and other surveys that I see being used for long-term conservation efforts. And I’ll still have fun on CBC’s!

2 Replies to “The Christmas (Count) Myth”

  1. Many doing the Spring count have covered the same area year after year. And after doing so for 30 years, changes are seen, because of environmental change. Years ago, in my yard/neighborhood, I would rarely see a white breasted nuthatch, only the red. Now I rarely see the red and the white is common. Never see a brown creeper anymore either. There are other changes in places I regularly cover.
    Most counters have more than one location. One I used to cover for many years is no longer useful because of development. I’m not going to waste my time when the only birds are starlings and house sparrows.
    We are limited by the number of counters. Numbers fluctuate. Less than half of the counties in Indiana get coverage in the Spring count, so good terrain is missed.

    1. Thanks for the reply Rick. Seems your area and CBC are about the same as ours. I always thought the CBC were used for a lot more things. By not covering all areas in a systematic manner, like you state skipping where there is now a development, the counts aren’t as useful. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t count in those areas either. It was just disappointing to find out they aren’t used like I thought.

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