How it began
Prior to the turn of the 20th century, hunters engaged in a holiday tradition known as the Christmas “Side Hunt.” They would choose sides and go afield with their guns–whoever brought in the biggest pile of feathered (and furred) quarry won. Conservation was in its beginning stages in that era, and many observers and scientists were becoming concerned about declining bird populations. Beginning on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, an early officer in the Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition: a “Christmas Bird Census” that would count birds during the holidays rather than hunt them.
So began the Christmas Bird Count (CBC).
Why it’s important
From December 14 through January 5 every year, tens of thousands of volunteers throughout the Americas take part in the effort. Audubon and other organizations use data collected to assess the health of bird populations, and to help guide conservation action.
The data collected by observers over the past century enable Audubon researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies and others to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys, such as the Breeding Bird Survey, the CBC provides a picture of how the continent’s bird populations have changed over the past hundred years. This long-term perspective is vital for conservationists. It informs strategies to protect birds and their habitats, and helps identify environmental issues with implications for people as well.
How it’s helped
Here are just a few ways in which Christmas Bird Count data have contributed to our understanding of the threats facing bird populations:
• Audubon’s 2014 Climate Change Report is a comprehensive, first-of-its kind study that predicts how climate change could affect the ranges of 588 North American birds. Of the 588 North American bird species Audubon studied, more than half are likely to be in trouble. Our models indicate that 314 species will lose more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080.
• The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has included Audubon’s climate change work from CBC data as one of 26 indicators of climate change in its 2012 report.
• In 2007, CBC data were instrumental in the development of Audubon’s Common Birds in Decline Report, which revealed that some of America’s most beloved and familiar birds have taken a nosedive over the past 40 years.
How local birders help
Formal records and data for the Omaha CBC date back to December 29, 1963, although there may have been some CBCs in the Omaha area prior to that. Since 1963 there has been an Omaha CBC every year.
How it’s done
Per CBC guidelines, the Omaha count area encompasses a circle 15 miles in diameter, centered at the Base Lake south of Bellevue. The circle is divided into four quadrants, with a captain and team of counters assigned to each.
The 4 quadrants are:
1. Bellevue (includes Fontenelle Forest)
2. Plattsmouth (includes Schilling WMA)
3. Lake Manawa, Iowa
4. Glenwood, Iowa (between Glenwood and Missouri River)
There are opportunities for participants to count morning-only, afternoon-only or all day. Quadrant captains usually start counting shortly after dawn and continue until their quadrants are sufficiently covered, normally by mid- to late afternoon. Counters take breaks during the day and usually stop for lunch. One member of each team is designated as the recorder, and s/he records time spent counting, miles driven and walked, and name/number of each species found. At day’s end, results from all quadrants are compiled during a pizza dinner.
People of all ages and birding abilities are welcome to participate in the count. Inexperienced counters are always placed with experienced leaders. Each person participating in the CBC should bring binoculars and dress for the weather. Some groups spend a lot of time hiking, while others spend more time in the car. Counters are assigned to groups according to their preferences for hiking versus riding.
The goal is to find as many birds and as many different species as possible … and to have an enjoyable day afield with fellow bird enthusiasts.
The 2019 Omaha CBC was held on January 1, 2020.
Historical records for the Omaha CBC
Number of Individual Birds
Number of Species