Christmas Bird Counts Provide Long-term Trends of Bird Diversity

Rough-legged hawk on the Ely CBC, photo by Gretchen Baker

Every year since 1900, bird lovers have gathered to count the birds at Christmastime. This tradition is called the Christmas Bird Count, sponsored by the National Audubon Society. It is the longest-running community science project in the nation. 

Starting in 1900 on Christmas Day, ornithologist Frank Chapman convinced 27 birders to count birds in 25 locations, mainly in the northeastern U.S., but also in Toronto, Canada, and California. 

Counting birds was a big change from the previous Christmastime tradition—shooting them. Fortunately, the counting caught on, and now Christmas Bird Counts are held all over the Americas. Over 80,000 observers venture out to count birds for the day at over 2,600 counts. 

Young volunteer looks for birds near Elko, photo by Lois Ports

Northern Nevada has 13 count circles, each of which is 15 miles in diameter. Within them, the area is split into various routes, and volunteers count all the birds they see or hear in that route. The results are tabulated and uploaded to Audubon, where the data is checked by a state compiler and analyzed for trends. 

The counts are held between December 14 and January 5 each year. They last 24 hours, from midnight to 11:59 pm, although most of the counting is done during daylight hours.

Counting birds at Christmas time can be addictive. 

David McNinch organizes the Fallon and Truckee Meadows Christmas Bird Counts.  “I’ve averaged at least 3 counts every year since 1986,” he said. “There’s always the excitement of getting a new species for the count (rarities) or having a high species total for the day.  But I think the greater value for me is establishing a consistent, trusted, and validated method of ‘citizen science.’” 

Lois Ports, organizer of the Elko Christmas Bird Count, said, “As the compiler, I totally enjoy collecting the data from year to year. It is always interesting to see if we manage to hit at least 60 species seen. It is always exciting to have a new species show up in our area.” 

Ports added, “Some years it is a challenge to participate especially if the weather is blizzardy or sub-zero cold, but the birds manage to persevere.” 

A volunteer on the Elko Christmas bird count uses a spotting scope to find distant birds, photo by Lois Ports

With Covid-19, three circles in Northern Nevada have been canceled this year, but 10 are moving forward with precautions. The gatherings afterward, often potlucks or pizza parties where participants chat about what cool birds they’ve found, have been canceled. Instead of pairing new birders with bird experts, routes are being done by individuals or household groups. 

Still, there are ways that folks with less birding experience can participate. If you have a birdfeeder and live within one of the count circles, it’s a great time to fill it and help attract birds. You can keep track of what birds come to it throughout the day and report that to the count organizer. There’s a special birdfeeder category that is uploaded to Audubon. 

McNinch said, “As a compiler, I’ve attempted to keep as much ‘noise’ out of the data as possible, and with the longer running counts such as Fallon and Truckee Meadows, some of the historic ‘noise’ is working its way out of the data.  I feel I am contributing information that will help us better understand the changes in our wintering avifauna and that the counts provide that opportunity to others as well.”

Wild turkeys on the Snake Valley CBC, photo Gretchen Baker

Another way to help is to keep an eye out for unusual birds anywhere in the count circle for three days before and three days after the official count day. This timer period is considered count week, and there are always additional birds that are seen. The ones for count week are just presence/absence, but they help give a sense of the frequency of that bird species. 

Ports said, “I always send out a wish list of species not seen on count day in hopes of picking them up in the last few days of count week.” 

Lahontan Audubon Society website has a list of Northern Nevada Christmas Bird Counts and who to contact for more information. You can find a map of the thousands of count circles on the Audubon website.

Song sparrow on the Snake Valley CBC, photo by Gretchen Baker

Even if this isn’t the year for you to participate in a Christmas Bird Count, it is a great time to learn more about birds, especially if you’re spending more time at home. One of the best things about bird-watching is that so many birds come to you. You can start learning about the birds that come to your backyard (a feeder helps) or local park. Starting in winter is a great time, as fewer birds are present. As you learn the basic birds, you will be able to expand as the summer birds arrive, and maybe even get some of the migratory ones that make quick sojourns as they travel north or south.

There are multiple websites and apps that help with bird identification. While you may start doing it by sight, more experienced birders can identify many birds by sound. The Great Basin Bird Observatory has a training module to help you train your ear to some of the more common birds by habitat type.

As you prepare for the holidays, take some time to head out and look at the birds, they are a beautiful addition to the Christmas season. Birdwatching is a fantastic pastime both during the pandemic and regular times, and adding to datasets that help track bird populations over decades is a worthy endeavor.


Gretchen Baker lives on a ranch in eastern Nevada with her husband and children. She is an author, photographer, and the ecologist at Great Basin National Park.