There’s nothing more festive about this time of year than getting together with friends and family and celebrating all the good things in life. We’re talking about birds, there, of course. This year sees the 123rd annual Christmas Bird Count in North America, when tens of thousands of people help conservationists, biologists, zoologists and many other -ists work their analytical magic.
Think about that: way back in 1900, 25 surveys were launched across the US and Canada by The Audubon Society, when people just like you and me loved the birds enough to get dressed up in warm clothes and (hopefully) dry footwear and head out into the freezing temperatures to watch birds. With cheeks reddening from the cold and eyes perhaps streaming from squinting into treetops and across fields, numbers and species names were scribbled down into notebooks for hours on end.
The Christmas Bird Count is one of the most valued citizen science projects in the world, by both the people who take part and the people who use all that wealth of data afterwards. Frank M Chapman was the utter genius who first came up with the idea of encouraging everyday folk to head outside in winter and count birds for someone else’s purpose.
An avid ornithologist and officer of one of the groups that would eventually become the National Audubon Society, Chapman suggested a “Christmas bird census” to be held on the 25th December for one day only, perhaps not wanting to ask too much from people in the depths of winter. What Chapman perhaps massively underestimated about people who love birds is that they are a little bit nuts; in a good way, of course. Those who took part declared the event a success and what’s more, great fun; they vowed to do it again the next year. Almost a century and a quarter later, and here we are.
Simple rules garner superb results: one compiler is assigned to a specific area coverage, a circle of 15 km diameter, and participants follow routes assigned by the compiler. Circles do not overlap. You stay in your specified area, and counts only take place on one day within a specific range of days, between December 14th and January 5th.
If your home is within a specific circle, you don’t even have to go out, you can just count the birds you see from the warmth of indoors. It’s not a species count, you just count all the birds you see or hear on that day, then submit your records, then have a big mug of hot chocolate and relax (heated cocoa-based drink optional).
The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) has become so successful that it is now referred to as a Christmas tradition, and it’s estimated that there are now around 1 million people taking part, spread across 20 countries. However, what has become apparent as the years pass, is that whilst the number of participants has increased, the number of birds seen and heard has decreased.
This is not down to dodgy mathematics: this is the simple fact that there are fewer birds in the world today than there were all those years ago when Frank Chapman and his 26 other coordinators set out on Christmas morning. Studies put this loss to be somewhere in the region of 3 billion fewer birds than there were 50 years ago. That’s not just certain types of birds, declines have been recorded across all groups of birds. This is of course tragic, but it’s counts like the CBC that will ultimately help scientists figure out why.
The data has been used in hundreds of analyses, peer-reviewed publications, and government reports over the decades. Yearly summaries of CBC data submitted by each circle compiler can be found here. These reports and analyses are then used to demonstrate to the people who we elect to make big decisions for us just what is happening as a result of those decisions.
Big handy tip – if the person you want to elect isn’t doing anything to help the environment and birds and all other wildlife, despite being given so much data in a format they can understand that shows them how they can help, please, vote for someone else. If no one else yet exists, choose the least damaging candidate. This is the end of our party-political broadcast.
Across the Atlantic in Scandinavia, there is a Christmas tradition that involves being incredibly thoughtful to our feathered friends on December 25th. The people of Norway, Sweden and Denmark believe that if you spread bird seed outside your door on Christmas morning, thereby inviting the birds to have a feast along with you, you will bring good luck to your home.
This tradition originates back from the time when folks would hang the last sheaves of grain and wheat from the autumn harvest on the door to ask the world for another successful harvest next year. In Sweden, these sheaves are called julkarve, and the Norwegians call them a julenek. These lines from a folk poem called The Julenek explain it more:
In years gone by, on Christmas eve,
When the day was nearly o’er,
Two desolate, starving birds flew past
A humble peasant’s door.
“Look! Look!” cried one, with joyful voice
And a piping tone of glee:
“In that sheaf there is plenteous food and cheer,
And the peasant had but three.
One he hath given to us for food,
And he hath but two for bread,
But he gave it with smiles and blessings,
‘For the Christ-child’s sake,’ he said.”
Since Victorian times, the European robin has been the birdy symbol for Christmas time, despite being a resident bird to the British Isles that can be seen all year round. This is in part down to the nickname for Royal Mail postmen being called robins based on their scarlet jackets, but also because the robin itself stands out bright blood-red against the white sparkling snows of winter, much like red cardinals do in the USA, a commonly Christmas-associated bird that side of the Atlantic.
However, over the years there have been suggestions to try and have another bird enter the Yuletide psyche. The color red is mostly associated with Christmas because of Santa’s suit, but that is actually a relatively modern choice. However, we’re here to help dispel the myth that Coca-Cola had a hand in changing St Nick’s robes – the figure associated with Christmas in many traditions has worn coats of various hues; red, yes, but also green, white and gold.
Coca-Cola was largely responsible for cementing the color red in our collective consciousness with its huge seasonal advertising campaign, but scarlet has always been associated with the giver of presents. Sticking with this color, one hot contender for top spot replacement bird that has been mentioned over the years is … the crossbill. Hear us out!
Not only is the male a pleasing shade of red, the female is green, two colors frequently seen in Christmas decorations like holly and ivy, tinsel, huge shiny apples as baubles on the green tree, and so on. Also, the bird’s name comes from its bill whose ends cross over at the tips. This is the result of an evolutionary adaptation to get inside the scales of the cones on evergreen trees, whose seeds they eat.
That means they typically live in places where trees like pines, spruces, and firs are common — cooler or mountainous places; Christmassy places. These birds also symbolize togetherness, giving, and family – Christmas! Plus, they can get quite rambunctious, as can we all after a few eggnogs. There could also be a very loose association with Jesus on the cross…bill.
If you are headed out on the CBC or any other bird count this winter, or you’re in the northern parts of Europe and setting out a Christmas Day present of bird food, or maybe even contemplating another species to draw on a card to send to your relatives and friends, make sure you wrap up warm, enjoy yourself, and thank you from all the birds, for all that you do for them.