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How the Christmas Bird Count will be different in 2020

Christmas Bird Count
Red-breasted Nuthatch in Calgary, Alberta. Photo by David Mundy

The Christmas Bird Count, an annual tradition for birdwatchers dating back to the year 1900, will look quite different this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A September message to count compilers from the National Audubon Society gave compilers the option of canceling their counts. It said for any compilers who chose to cancel that “Audubon fully supports your decision to cancel. The safety of our compilers and community scientists will always be our top priority.”

Geoff LeBaron, Christmas Bird Count director for the National Audubon Society, says “a fair but not overwhelming number of compilers are canceling their counts” this year. Most compilers, however, are planning to hold their counts using COVID safety protocols.

“I’ve had lots of questions as to whether a low-effort or low-coverage CBC is still worth submitting, and the answer to that is definitely yes,” LeBaron says. “Anything that folks can get done can be entered into the database.”

Audubon’s rules for COVID-safe CBCs require no in-person compilation gatherings such as potlucks, wearing masks and social distancing at all times in the field, carpooling only among family members or social “pod” groups, and compliance with all current state and municipal COVID-19 guidelines.

The CBC is a census of birds conducted by a team of birders within a 15-mile diameter on one calendar day between December 14 and January 5. Each compiler chooses a date (and a backup date in case of bad weather) and manages their list of participants.

If your home is within an active count circle, you can take part by counting the birds in your yard on your local count day and submitting the data to your local compiler.

“I suspect we’ll see a higher proportion of feeder watchers this season than normal, but that will be fine as well,” LeBaron says. “All of those types of things get accounted for during analyses as folks will also be entering their effort data as well as the birds, so the value of the data that can be gathered should still be fine. In fact, it might be interesting to compare what happens this season to ‘regular’ seasons and look into how reduced effort actually affects the results of the count.”

If you want to count in the field or from home, visit the Join the CBC page on the Audubon website.

On that page, you’ll find a link to a map of all the active, expected counts in the 121st CBC, and when you click on the icon at the center of each circle, you’ll get a pop-up with the compiler’s name, contact info, and anticipated date or notice if the count has been cancelled due to COVID.

You can also download the ArcGIS Explorer app for your smartphone. Enter “121st Christmas Bird Count” in the search box to see a map of active count circles, and then zoom in to your location to find counts near you.


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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and You can reach him at

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