A Guide: What Even Is a Christmas Bird Count and Why You Should Do It

"PPPB" (Via Prospect Park Instagram)

Each year, for the last 115 years, the Audubon Society has counted every bird in all of North, Central, and northern South America for its Annual Christmas Bird Count. What is an Annual Christmas Bird Count? And why does it even exist? Good questions! Good questions with kind of disturbing answers. The Audubon Society’s annual bird count actually started as a reaction to a kind of awful-but-typical-of-America-in-1900 practice: competitions to see how many birds hunters could shoot, and who could make the largest piles out of them. So one ornithologist decided to try to reverse this trend by doing something different, counting them. And so, for the last 115 years, local bird clubs have divided and conquered the majority of this hemisphere in “circles” and reported bird numbers to the Audubon Society for its annual census.

This Saturday, the Brooklyn Bird Club will send birders throughout Kings County to tabulate every single bird in Brooklyn on behalf of the annual count. And while this count will be conducted by fairly serious citizen scientists and enthusiastic birders (meaning, not you, likely), you can join in a more casual and local Christmas Bird Count hosted by Prospect Park Alliance and Audubon Center, starting on December 26. It will mimic the official census on a much smaller scale and—more importantly—it will help you understand why birding and birds that aren’t the Prospect Park painted bunting (which, I recently discovered, is sometimes referred to in shorthand as “PPPB”) are awesome.

As a preview to this year’s Christmas Bird Count, I met Prospect Park Alliance’s supervising educator, Averill Wickland, inside the gorgeous Beaux Arts Boathouse, which is also home to the Park’s Audubon Center.

Wickland grew up in Vermont, and his dad was an Audubon Society member who would wake up at four in the morning to go outside and look for birds. At the time, Wickland thought he was kind of crazy, telling me: “I didn’t know enough about birds to appreciate them other than: It’s really cool that they fly and some of them look really pretty.”

Wickland’s knowledge of birds has since expanded, obviously, but if all you know about our avian friends is that they can “fly” and sometimes “look really pretty,” then you should consider joining this year’s Christmas Bird Count, which will run through January 1, and takes place around the periphery of Prospect Park’s Lullwater region, directly abutting the back of the Boathouse. On the walks, participants will have the chance to be “citizen scientists,” an important subset of scientific analysis.

“Citizen science is really the average individual getting out and being able to collect data that they share with organizations,” explains Wickland, which is crucial because it gives organizations like eBirds more data than scientists could ever collect on their own.

Beyond that, Wickland points out, the experience is also exciting for novice birders on a personal level. “When you are participating in this and learning more, then that’s going to increase your appreciation for it—and that’s something that happened to me with birds,” he says.  Standing inside the silent, gorgeous building, which was not open that day to the public, listening to Wickland earnestly describe his passion for birds to me, I was starting to get excited about them, too. “Obviously the painted bunting being here has really put the spotlight on birds, and I think that’s great.”

Beyond enjoying birds for their beauty and ability to fly, by observing them we can learn a lot about our environment and climate change. “Something I would be talking about on one of my [Christmas Bird tours] is we already are seeing changes in migration cycles,” says Wickland. “A year ago Audubon made climate change the number one issue affecting birds. The amount of space they—migratory birds—have to cover makes them particularly vulnerable to changes in their habitat and by other humans.”

Wickland expects hundreds of people to show up daily for Prospect Park Alliance’s Winter Recess programming, which also includes nature explorations, crafts and games, and “Animal Encounters,” where people can meet an albino rat snake named Chester, praying mantises, crayfish, and a turtle, among other creatures.

When the Audubon Center is open, you can also just go and hang out on the second story porch that looks over the Lullwater region—which, like all the other man-made bodies of water in Prospect Park, is filled with good old NYC tap water—and just hang out with Wickland. It is quite pleasant. There is, Wickland points out, no requirement to enjoy animals while you visit. But if you do talk to him for a minute, or join his Christmas Bird Count, you likely will anyway. His love for the park and all things in it is pretty contagious.

“I do love my job and I’m glad that it shows,” says Wickland. “This is my favorite park I’ve ever been to.” Especially, he says, for its vast diversity among the people who use it, and the nature found in it. “Doing this sort of nature programming is something that I would love to do regardless of whether I was being paid or not.”

Christmas Bird Count during Prospect Park Winter Recess runs December 26 – January 1, daily at 2pm; free. See all other recess programming here

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