Photograph by CLAIRE ROSEN
Photograph by CLAIRE ROSEN

This Bird-Lovers Society Has a Special Christmas Tradition

For over 100 years, bird-watchers have participated in the Audubon Society’s Christmas bird census.

This story appears in the December 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

This month Geoffrey LeBaron, 63, marks his 30th year as director of the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count. Tens of thousands of bird-watchers turn out for the event, started in 1900; scientists use its data to monitor bird-population trends.

How did the Christmas Bird Count get started?
In the 1800s there was something called a Christmas side hunt where people would choose sides and go out during the holiday and hunt. Whoever brought in the biggest pile of birds and other animals won. By the late 1800s the Audubon movement was increasing awareness for conservation. So ornithologist Frank Chapman proposed in 1900 that rather than a holiday hunt, we do a Christmas bird census.

What birds are you most eager to see?
One of the questions I get a lot is, What’s your favorite bird? And my answer is, Whatever bird I’m looking at. It doesn’t have to be rare. The bird I probably want to see most this year is a gull. Fifteen years ago I was doing my count in Rhode Island’s Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge, and I saw this interesting-looking little gull sitting on a rock. It was an adult lesser black-backed gull, which was very unusual. Every year since then I have seen that same bird. It’s on the same rock in the same cove, and it acts the same way and feeds in the same area. So it’s not only about a connection with the area and birding with my friends, but this gull has become a friend of mine. I mean, I’m going to be really unhappy the year that I don’t find it.

What changes has the count detected?
People tend to think of a species being at risk when there are only a few left, like California condors. But it’s a lot more cost-effective to figure out what’s affecting a species while it’s still plentiful. One of the key things we do is look at the count data and figure out which common birds are declining. In 2009 we looked at the wintering ranges of more than 300 species and found that the area of greatest abundance for many has moved as much as 200 miles northward over a 40-year period. Documenting that enables people to go figure out what’s happening to cause those changes.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.