Commentary: Audubon Christmas Bird Count has expanded since its origins

By Steve Cottrell

This year marks the 121st iteration of the long-standing Christmas Bird Count program of the National Audubon Society.

Steve Cottrell

The first count occurred on Christmas Day in 1900, to counter a holiday tradition known as the Christmas “Side Hunt,” where hunters would choose sides and shoot birds to determine which side would accumulate the biggest pile of feathered victims. Because early conservationists of the era were becoming concerned about declining bird populations, a new holiday tradition was proposed. Birds would be observed and counted during the Christmas holiday, rather than being hunted.

From the first 1900 count, which took place in 25 locations in the United States and Canada, today’s holiday bird census has expanded to over 2,000 locations with over 70,000 people participating in the United States, Canada and a growing list of locations in Latin America. Every year, the Christmas Bird Count occurs from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5.

Each of the individual counts takes place within an established 15-mile diameter circle, organized by a count compiler. Count volunteers cover designated areas within a circle, counting every bird they see or hear, to give an indication of the total number of birds observed in the circle that day.

Greater White-fronted Geese (behind the Canada Geese) were
spotted on the Newark Reservoir on the 2017 Christmas Bird Count. (Photo by Curt Davis)

The Christmas Bird Count is open to anyone who wishes to participate. If you are a beginning birder, you will be assigned to a group that includes at least one experienced birder.

Great White-fronted Goose shown in more detail from a photo a few days after the 2017 Christmas Bird Count. (Photo by Curt Davis)

For many years, Delaware has had seven count circles, including Wilmington, Middletown, Bombay Hook, Milford, Cape Henlopen-Prime Hook, Rehoboth Beach and Seaford-Nanticoke. To find out how to participate in one of the Delaware counts, go to and click on the Map of Active Circles, type in Delaware in the Find Address or Place window and then click on the circle you are interested in. The information that appears will include the name and email address of the compiler you will need to contact to participate in the count of that circle.

To learn about what the National Audubon researchers are able to do with the volunteer-collected data from the Christmas Bird Count, an informative “Where Have All the Birds Gone?” tool is available at When it opens, click on OK, then enter the name of a bird in the Species window. The map will show the relative abundance of that species over the selected time interval.

Chandler Robbins, a legend in the birding world and well-known by many in the Delaware birding community, is featured in “Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count narrated by Chan Robbins” at

Delaware native Steve Cottrell is a graduate of the University of Delaware and board member of the Delaware Audubon Society. He is active in natural area-restoration projects in New Castle County, providing and protecting habitats for birds.