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Christmas Bird Count Dos and Don'ts

I know all about how NOT to DO a Christmas Bird Count from a handful of learning experiences. I also have a few tips to maximize your fun and minimize incorrect assumptions. I will combine this knowledge to give you the best shot for a hoot of a time!

A Merlin sits on a light pole.
A Merlin eats a House Sparrow during a Christmas Bird Count!

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Have you attended a Christmas Bird Count?

  • 0%Yes

  • 0%No

  • 0%Oh God, the horror.


As you read through this top-notch Christmas Bird Count guide, you will see some of my favorite photos from previous counts!


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What to Expect at a Christmas Bird Count

This list of expectations will help to get your mind and body prepared for what is to come. An epic journey. To count birds. Mainly from a car. Likely a poorly driven car. Birdspeed noble counters.


Expect an Absence of Acceptable Acquaintance

Unexpected... opportunities... will almost certainly present themselves if you are attending your first count. Compilers (usually) do their best to make everyone comfortable. However, sending a rookie counter out might prove to be a poor decision.


This leads to our first expectation.


When attending your very first Christmas Bird Count, you can almost certainly count on being awkwardly placed into a group of people you do not know! While this might be a deterrent to those suffering from social anxiety, I hope it does not prohibit you from attending one of these fantastic community science events.


Expect a Defeat by Some Deadbeat Eats

In many rural communities, some compilers seem to lack much breakfast imagination. Artisan coffee, breakfast tacos, fruit-filled crepes, flan, French toast, eggs benedict, duck gravy poutine, and countless other morning opportunities exist. Yet, the locations offering these flavorful foods are often overlooked. Thus, our second expectation.


Many rural bird counts meet at the local McDonald's to sort routes and ingest less-than-steller coffee. If you partake in this ritual, you might also expect a stomachache. Or worse.


If you are a compiler reading this, meet at a local breakfast shop. Forgo the Starbucks, McDonald's, etc. Want more local support? Host your morning meeting in a local spot!


Expect to Accept the Excess Arctic Aspect

The Christmas Bird Count is... expectedly... held around Christmas time. If you live in the northerly parts of North America, I would encourage you to dress warmly. Especially your feet. Wear some heavy wool socks. Or multiple socks. Or utilize heated boot inserts.


Because...


Your feet are likely to be cold. If you are riding in someone else's vehicle (almost guaranteed), be prepared for them to be more prepared than you. This means they will be dressed with heavy layers, often leading to a car temperature that could safely store select deli meats. So keep your little foot sausages, ham hocks, and binocular holders warm. Wear layers. (Plus, you never know when those layers will be helpful for survival.)

An American Dipper sits on a concrete wall.
An American Dipper sits above a mostly frozen stream.

Expect to Quickly Quip on the Quantity of Your Qualifications

If you have any experience birding, identifying birds, counting birds, etc., you will be asked about your levels of expertise and comfort. Be honest. If you have never attended before, yes, you might be placed with a stranger. BUT! That stranger might help you to learn about birds or gain a new appreciation for birds. They might even be your future bird mentor. Just ignore their driving. All birders drive like that. Which leads to...


Expect Unexpected Undue Undulation on Your Upper Body

You have probably seen my references to the driving you might expect on a bird count. It is not a complete exaggeration. Birders might be good drivers, but that is only when birds are not around. When a birder is rushing to see birds, covering a lot of ground, or chasing a rarity, they are all gas. Then all brake. Then all ga... BRAKE! BIRD! PRAIRIE FALCON! ADD IT! GASSSSSS! Did you see that!? BRAKE!!


Your upper body will look like a wacky-wavy-inflatable-arm-flailing-tubeman.


Yep. That is an actual reenactment of a count trip I was on. That was all within 30 seconds. The count lasted 8+ hours. Gird your loins, dear bird friends. (If you like thrills, it is a lot of fun.)


Expect to be a Monger of a Bungling Hunger

Humans need food. Even when counting birds. I am pretty sure there is some sort of published research on this. There is a published paper on everything. But seriously, pack some food. Snacks, drinks, maybe even a lunch. There is no guarantee your count group will stop for food, drinks, or anything else. And if you are too awkward to ask, pack a backpack full of food and drink. Nobody should go birding, angry. Bangry.


Pack some snacks and a lunch, and definitely bring some caffeine. Birding can be exhausting. If you are riding in someone else's car, definitely pack snacks that are unlikely to make a mess. And pack some sanitizer and hand wipes too. You likely will not have a chance to wash your hands properly.


Expect an Existential Excitement

The Christmas Bird Count can be fun. Go in with a positive attitude, and positive experiences will follow. Hopefully. Even during my first Christmas Bird Count, when I had no interest in birds, I had a blast. I went in with an open mind, allowing me to experience something new and fun. (Though I also experienced a lot of strange situations.) I encourage you to do so as well.

A Varied Thrush sits in a crabapple tree.
A Varied Thrush surprised many on this CBC!

What to DO at a Christmas Bird Count

I have created a list of actions, preparations, and random other things to do when preparing for and attending a Christmas Bird Count. This is a living list that will be added to, and if you have a suggestion for it, please add it in the comment section at the bottom of the article.


DO bring binoculars.

Binoculars are used to see birds. I guess eyeballs are too. So bring both. (Also, please start calling all binoculars wobbly gogglies.)


DO remember to listen.

To the birds. And maybe the route leader and compiler. Maybe.


**(If you have any vision, auditory, or physical impairments, do NOT hesitate to join a count. Birding is for everyone.)


DO wear deodorant.

This is just good practice. You are likely to be in a tight space.


DO count birds.

I mean, it's why you're there.


DO the DO before you count.

If you doubt this advice, read my harrowing tale.


DO bring a guide. Preferably for birds.

Merlin. Sibley. Audubon. Does not matter. Just bring a guide, even if you do not know how to use it properly.


DO practice with Merlin before heading into the field.

Merlin is a worthwhile app that can help narrow your bird species choices. It is not a guaranteed identification.


DO dress warmly.

Unless you are in the tropics. Then dress to be cool and dry. But also dress stylishly. Birds will poop on ugly sweaters. And outrageous hats.


DO ask questions.

If you assume too much, you might have a bad time.

An Eastern Screech-Owl sits in a serviceberry bush.
Don't fall asleep during the count. Like this Eastern Screech-Owl did.

DO plan to be out all day.

This is not a walk in the park. Unless you're walking in the park to count birds!


DO pack food.

You will get hungry. FACT.


DO have a way to get out of the count if you aren't having fun.

Have an escape route if you are not gel-ing or vibing with your count crew! No, my sister is not having a baby, but her text sure says she is!


DO take photos.

Bring a camera. Take photos of birds. Take photos of yourself. Take photos of your friends and family. Then share your experience with others!

 

If you want a compact birding camera, I recommend the Sony RX10 IV!

Sony RX10 IV against a Wyoming sunset
 

DO make memories.

While your memories hopefully do not involve seeing the tighty whities of your 74-year-old professor, do log some of the experiences of your first count away in your noodle.


DO take kids!

Ask to join a kid-friendly route if you do this, but it might be an experience that changes the scope of their world!


DO take something fun for the kids to do...

(Just in case the birding is slow, have a backup. Always have a backup.)


DO share your eBird username.

eBird is a great way to track bird sightings. Create an eBird account and share the username with your count party.


This list may not be exhaustive, but as I remember other DOs, I will get them added to this list!


What NOT to DO at a Christmas Bird Count

The DO list is helpful. The DO NOT list is more of an opportunity for me to crack-wise. Though, there may be a helpful tip or two hidden amongst the chicanery.


DO NOT forget your underwear.

You do not want to be remembered as THAT person.


DO NOT get robotic binocular vision surgically installed.

It is really just not worth the money.

 

Want a pair of binoculars that will last a lifetime? Nikon Monarchs.

Nikon Monarch M5 Binoculars
 

DO NOT talk politics, the stock market, or social reconstructivism.

You don't know these people. Also, don't talk about it with the birds. They can be judgemental.


DO NOT use playback without confirming it is okay.

Playback is illegal in refuges and parks. It is also not encouraged in most situations.


DO NOT dress as an outdoor kitty cat.

This is a hot-button topic. You will lose. Also, there are just situations that require non-costume clothing.


DO NOT bring a pet.

Yes, your ferret is cute. Yes, I want to pet it. But no, it is not a good idea.


DO NOT smoke around others.

This has nothing to do with the count. People don't want to smell and choke on the smoke. Gross.


DO NOT bring a five-course meal.

Keep it simple.

A Ferruginous Hawk looks down at the photographer.
Do not worry. I was not forced into hand-to-talon combat with this Ferruginous Hawk.

DO NOT walk on the ice above the sewage lagoons.

You do not want to know what lies beneath.


DO NOT eat the yellow snow.

This is my Dad's advice. Always.


DO NOT talk when the rare bird shows up. Or breathe. Or move. Or exist.

You do not want to make this mistake. You will hate birders if you scare a rare bird away. But make sure to enjoy the rare bird! Just do so without existing...


DO NOT eat the shoulder cheese.

I'm watching a funny show while writing this. It's irrelevant.


DO NOT spike your water bottle, no matter how much you want to.

You need your wits about you. Jack Daniels is a terrible bird counter.


DO NOT traverse into a dark, mystical forest leading to a fantasy dimension.

AKA, have a map. Or GPS.


DO NOT bring a weapon.

You can probably take most birds in hand-to-hand combat. Except for chickadees. They know martial arts. Bald Eagles are pushovers. (Seriously though, it is always wise to carry pepper spray or a personal defense device when in the field. Carry bear spray if in bear country.)


DO NOT rely solely upon Merlin

If you took our advice above and downloaded Merlin and are practicing with it, heed this advice. Don't rely upon its identification solely. It is not 100% foolproof. Get confirmation on IDs.


A Christmas Bird Count to Remember

You are now prepared for your first Christmas Bird Count. In fact, you might be more prepared than the seasoned bird-counting vets drinking coffee and polishing their abacuses. Have fun, be safe, make memories, and see a lot of new and exciting birds.


Happy counting, my dear bird-nerdy friends.


 

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