At the Southern Pump House in Central Park, the volunteers of the 123rd Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count begin to arrive around 8 a.m. Despite the mid-December chill and the early wake-up, the steadily growing group of avian enthusiasts and first-time birders are prepared with binoculars for the task ahead: to count every bird in Central Park in under four hours.
The rules of December 18 are straightforward: every bird counts. The volunteers join one of seven sections that fan out across designated zones in the park such as the Ramble and the Great Lawn. Each group is led by a “count leader” from the NYC Audubon staff and joined by park rangers from the NYC Parks Department. Until 12 p.m. the groups walk nearly every path in Central Park, counting birds in trees, under bushes, swimming in ponds and wheeling through the sky. As each bird sighting is called, count leaders note down the bird species. The steadily growing numbers of starlings and woodpeckers will be combined with the other group’s tallies at the end of the day.
The Christmas Bird Count is the nation’s longest-running community science bird project. It was originally inspired in reaction to the holiday tradition of the Christmas “side hunt,” a popular activity in the late 1800s and early 1900s where a group of hunters would split into sides and see who could bring in the most game. In 1990, ornithologist and Audubon Society member Frank M. Chapman thought to try counting birds instead of killing them, launching the “Christmas Bird Census.”
Now, every year nature lovers can attend counts held in various parks across the country from December 14 through January 5. In addition to the count in Central Park, several locations in Manhattan and Northern New Jersey were organized by NYC Audubon including Bryant Park, Governors Island, Hudson Yards, and Inwood Hill. This year the first count of Madison Square Park was held.
Accurate Data Collection
Counting birds is no easy task. They move fast, hide well, and double counting is inevitable. When a large flock of pigeons flies by, even the most experienced birders must make their best estimates. Audubon used a set methodology to ensure accurate data collection, including the strategy employed in Central Park of counting sections of a designated area.
Another helpful tip is to note the time and flight direction of bigger birds like a red-tailed hawk, which can be compared with other groups to avoid repeating data points. Due to the number of counts participating around the country, the results of the annual count often take months to be compiled.While it can be challenging to obtain, the information collected from the annual count provides researchers with important data to study the health of bird populations and track changes over the years. “Urban wildlife biodiversity is declining significantly and it’s data like the Christmas Bird Count and other population censuses that provide that information,” said Jessica Wilson, NYC Audubon Executive Director. “It fuels conservation action to protect birds and the habitats they depend on.”
The annual bird count has provided the backbone for reports such as Audubon’s Common Birds in Decline Report, which showed the decline of some of America’s favorite birds over the course of the past forty years as well as Audubon’s 2014 Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink which contributed to research on how climate change is impacting bird species. The study was the first to predict how our warming planet will threaten more than half of the 588 North American bird species.
NYC’s Conservation Efforts
While the outlook for New York City’s bird populations is grim, some highlights from this year’s count show how effective the city’s conservation efforts can be. On the Randall’s Island count, a bald eagle was spotted. Until recently, bald eagles were on the verge of extinction. Their population is recovering and now it’s not so rare to see them flying around New York City.
The tufted titmouse has also been making a remarkable comeback in Central Park. Last year only a few were recorded while this year 750 were seen flitting through the urban green space. Another highlight from Randall’s Island was a sighting of an orange-crowned warbler, an unusual species for New York City. The warbler is known as a “life bird” meaning it was the first time many had seen it in their lives.
Along with the possibility of some interesting sightings, a major draw of the annual count is it makes birding accessible to a wider audience. Anyone who wants to join the annual count can. “We’re seeing a huge surge in popularity in recent years, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Wilson. “New Yorkers especially know the benefits of being in nature for physical and mental health and enjoying the biodiversity of the birds right outside their front doors.” This year about a quarter of NYC Audubon’s volunteers were completely new to birding.
“New Yorkers especially know the benefits of being in nature for physical and mental health and enjoying the biodiversity of the birds right outside their front doors.” Jessica Wilson, NYC Audubon