If you’re new to birding, let me tell you that bird counting season is upon us, in addition to all the other festivities as the year ends. And I’m talking about the big count of the year, the Christmas Bird Count.
Now going on its 118th year, the annual Christmas Bird Count takes place across the Americas, folks like you and me counting all the birds they see in one day between mid December and early January. The data collected informs conservation efforts regarding the health of bird populations. It’s citizen—or community—science IRL.
The CBC is quite a beloved tradition among birders, and how could it not be? Imagine gathering with other bird lovers, bundled in your warmest clothes and clutching your binocs and a thermos of coffee (and maybe some holiday cookies?), traipsing through your patch or park or designated count territory, counting birds as part of the oldest bird count in history.
For all the bird counting I have done in my life—ten-plus years of monthly bird census in two different Seattle parks with Seattle Audubon—I have never done the Christmas Bird Count (CBC)! It was about time.
This year, my local Audubon chapter, Seattle Audubon, hosted a Youth Christmas Bird Count, inviting parents like me with younger children not up for an all day count.
I jumped at the chance to participate in a less time-intense event than the official Christmas Bird Count taking place on December 29th. I love a good all-day birding trip, don’t get me wrong, but my kiddos do not have the same stamina.
Well, turns out neither kid really has the interest, either! While both kids like being outdoors, my son hasn’t taken to my hobby; it’s always a bit of a forced march for him. But he rallied as best he could this time (given that we could not land on a play date for him for him as an opt-out).
My daughter is game for most anything but follows the lead of her older brother, which was to play with leaf litter and stomp on snow berries instead of listen and watch for birds. That was OK with me, and thankfully, the rest of the group was OK with that too.
Despite my two kids going off course as far as the bird count was concerned, I considered the outing a success, mainly because of the hosting organization, Seattle Audubon.
Here is what they did right (there was no “wrong” in my opinion):
Seattle Audubon provided hot beverages and pastries for participants—essential fortification before heading out on the count.
The staff hosted an interpretive table of bird skins to touch while everyone assembled.
The start time for the walk was not HARD set in stone! We arrived 5 minutes late and our walk began about 10 minutes later. Time for gathering ourselves and grabbing a cup of coffee (me!) and a scone. Parents of little kids appreciate some forgiveness for not always being punctual!
The youth and smaller children were divided into two groups. The older kids went for a longer (duration and mileage) walk than our group of kids 10 and younger. GENIUS.
Each child got an illustrated bird list and pencil for checking off what they saw.
The 10 and younger group (about 28 of us, including our leader, Etta) meandered over 1.5 miles of wide paved path that allowed the group to spread out or stay close as they preferred (continued below).
No one objected if kids lagged behind (as in MY children!) or picked up sticks or stomped on snow berries. The open parkland absorbed the modest din of distracted kids so we did not disrupt those birding further ahead of us.
The route went past a playground at milepost 1.25, a perfect time for nearly all the kids (ages 2 to 10) to break from the group and play for a few minutes.
The Monday following, the staff sent an eBird list to share of the species seen by those who had birded more attentively than me and my kids. The list resembled what birds I recall seeing between playing with my son and daughter (continued below).
As a parent taking part in a bird walk, I recommend a few things to think about, too:
The Christmas Bird Count is similar to a Bird Walk. For both, there is usually a designated leader who sets the pace and keeps a record of what birds everyone sees. The leader should know the route and be able to tell you how long you’ll be out.
The leader may or may not be a bird expert. Other participants may or may not be bird experts. But you all have a love for and curiosity of birds in common.
Dress for the weather, be prepared to walk a short distance, and anticipate a couple hours or more outside.
Bring optics if you have them, a field guide or field guide app (I like the Sibley one).
Bring a stroller or a carrier, depending on the age of the kids (find out if the walk is paved). I liked having the stroller since we could stick the bird list in it, as well as lug various supplies with us, such as binoculars and snacks.
Know what your kid can tolerate, and don’t force it. My son gave an earnest try at listening and looking for a while and then we fell behind (so we wouldn’t distract the group) and I let him and my daughter play. We trailed the group but stayed the whole time, the kids getting a nature fix that just wasn’t as bird-oriented. I figure meeting halfway with my son is further along than forcing him to participate in birding the way I understand it.
Talk to the other participants! Birding is a wonderful community of people and most birders are nice! And those with kids already share this interest in common with you!
Give a look and listen in your neighborhood as the year draws to a close and see what birds are flitting around. Now you know there’s an official count going on to take this same tally.
For more tips on birding with children, read my earlier posts here. Thanks for reading!