Insider Info

During the Christmas Bird Count, thousands of volunteers throughout the Americas head in to the great (and often snowy) outdoors to count birds.

This annual event dates back to 1900. More than 50,000 "birders" in the United States, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean participate in the event.

The Christmas Bird Count is one of the single largest volunteer events and the highlight of the birding season. It takes place during a two-week period in about 2,000 different localities.

Professional scientists use the collected information to assess the health of bird populations around the world. This information can be of great scientific value because the presence and absence of certain birds in certain parts of the world says a lot about the general state of the environment.

But even a large count fills in only a small part of the overall picture.

"You need long-term [data] to analyze trends and see the trends," says Lisa Burt. She is a biologist at a bird observatory.

It may take several years to collect enough information for scientists to see and analyze trends. And since it would be extremely expensive to send hordes of scientists into the field, bird observatories and other environmental groups rely on birders.

"Without the volunteers, we wouldn't be able to get such a large database of information," says Burt. She also volunteered as a birder before becoming a professional biologist.

Birders may perform a number of different tasks. They may count bird populations, identify the sex of birds and put small bands around their feet so scientists in other parts of the world can track their numbers and migratory routes.

Birders may also teach others about birds and the habitats in which they live.

Teaching others about birds and their habitats is what Canice Lawler strives to do on the nature tours that she leads. A birder for over 15 years, Lawler started to volunteer for a local naturalist club because she was concerned about the impact of suburban sprawl on surrounding bird habitats.

"For those of us who enjoy seeing [birds], we are concerned, and we want to educate people so they also can appreciate it... and make more conservation-minded choices in their lives," she says.

"It's just a gradual process," she adds. "One can't change the world, but one can share one's world and hope that other people who become aware of it will also kind of share your values, and hope that they will act on them."

Birding can also leave you with some memorable moments.

Just ask retiree Ted Maddeford. He volunteers for a bird observatory, counting bird populations that live in small marshes. On one round, he experienced a moment that would easily fit in to an Alfred Hitchcock suspense movie.

As he was standing on a dyke, overlooking the marsh, a swarm of blackbirds rose in to the fall sky. Flying directly over Maddeford, the flock appeared to stretch from one end of the horizon to the other. "It wasn't, but it seemed that way," he recalls.

Geoff Barnard has been a birder for over 10 years. For the past several years, he has been leading nature walks through a nature reserve.

On one occasion, his group encountered an owl sitting on a branch high above the trail. Undisturbed by the humans below, the owl coughed up a pellet made of all the materials its stomach could not break down.

Such pellets are of great value to biologists, and Barnard was more than happy to tell the local naturalist about it. This was a big deal for Barnard because, like all the people who work and volunteer at the nature reserve, he is enthusiastic about birds and nature.

And you just need to say that you saw such-and-such a bird to spark that enthusiasm.

"Everybody will drop what they are doing unless they happen to be actually on the phone, and they will come rushing out to see it," he says.

How to Get Involved

Birding is not hard, says Lawler. "But you have to have a real interest in birds," she says. "It is not something where you can say, 'All right, tomorrow I am going to lead a bird walk' if you don't know anything about birds."

You can purchase field guides to get started, but it may take some time before you can identify birds on the spot by their shapes, colors and songs.

Maddeford has been birding for several decades, and even he is still learning. "As I said, I have been doing this for a long time, and there are still some songs I don't know," he says.

You should also be reasonably physically fit if you want to become a birder, says Burt.

Walks may last several hours. And birders may have to cover some rough terrain.

Note, though, that this volunteer activity is also open to people with physical disabilities affecting their mobility. They can just put up a bird feeder in their backyard and count birds from the comfort of their home.

So who needs birders? Government research stations, universities and nonprofit environmental groups. And they need them during certain peak times of the year. Those times include the fall season, when birds are heading south for the winter, and the spring, when the birds are coming back north to breed.

You may volunteer for only a few hours each week during a season, or you may volunteer for the entire season. Many organizations will give you free room and board if you come from out of town and if you sign up for an entire season.

Be prepared to rough it if you decide to volunteer in a remote area like the Canadian North.

Birding is relatively inexpensive. All you need is a pair of good boots, a notebook and binoculars.


American Birding Association
4945 N. 30th St., Suite 200
Colorado Springs , CO   80919

National Audubon Society
225 Varick St., 7th Floor
New York , NY   10014


The Great Backyard Bird Count
Find out how you can participate in this annual event

Birding on the Web
A general resource guide for birders

The Virtual Birder
Keep up to date with the latest birding news

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