History of the Christmas Bird Count

The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) started on Christmas Day in 1900 as an alternative to hunting during the holiday events. Typically, family and friends would gather for a large Christmas Hunt, bringing in whatever they could as a sort of competition. Frank M. Chapman suggested to his friends that maybe this year, instead of hunting, they should take a census of every bird they see. His friends agreed, and 25 bird counts were completed that day. The counts that were held that day in 1900 recorded in total about 90 birds, reaching from Ontario to Pacific Grove, California. You can see a complete list from the first count here! The success of the event inspired them to continue the count the next year, and soon a holiday tradition was born.

Black and white image of the Saw-whet Owl in 1959

This Saw-whet Owl was found during the 1959 Christmas Bird Count and was included in the Iowa Bird Life report from March of 1960.

According to the Big Bluestem Audubon Society November/December newsletter from 1996, the first CBC in Iowa was held in 1903 in the city of Decorah, and by 1922 ten cities in the state of Iowa were holding Christmas Bird Counts. Ames joined the event from 1923-1930, when the area took a brief break, but they rejoined in the 1960’s and have continued to participate ever since. Today the event is hosted by the Audubon Society, uniting thousands of local birding chapters from across the country. The count is held from December 14 through January 5 with groups from all over the United States participating in the Christmas Bird Count.

The main idea of the CBC is that each group is to try and record as many birds as possible within their assigned area in one day. Each group covers a 7.5 mile radius which they look over and carefully observe and write down every bird that they come across. The count is fun and a little competitive, but also serves as an essential tool in gathering critical information about the birds that live in an area. At the end of the count, the numbers are combined and sent in to the Audubon Society who in return tally the information and make it available on their website. You can find information from the previous Christmas Bird Counts here. The data compiled during these counts can help researchers study migration patterns, avian health, global warming changes, and so much more.

Scan of the first page of the 1977 IOU Christmas Bird Count report

The first page of the 1977 IOU Christmas Bird Count report. MS 166 Box 18 Folder 4

The Iowa Ornithologists’ Union has been helping people across the state participate in CBC for many years now. They create groups, provide resources for volunteers, assist new bird watchers, and compile results at the end. When the count is finished they release a report including information from each count along with state-wide data and any fun stories that may have developed over the day. Occasionally, the counting groups find much more than what they signed up for! In 1977 the members of the Red Rock area counting group were apprehended by the police after human remains were found while they were counting in their search area! The police held the group for two hours while they were interrogated about what they were doing out that day.

The count will begin any day now, so be sure to watch as groups send in their numbers. For more information about the Christmas Bird Count, the Audubon Society has great resources here!