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Identity & Community

A Century-Old Tradition: Bird Watchers Gather For Christmas Bird Count

Martin Pettitt

Experts will join new and experienced bird watchers expecting to identify 80 species and 29,000 individual kinds of birds in the Pittsburgh region during a one-day count.

The birds will be documented during the annual “Christmas Bird Count.”

 “There is no estimation whatsoever,” said Brian Shema, operations director at the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. “People are physically counting those birds. We do not take any estimates of anything. What we miss, we miss. And what we count, we document.”

In the past, Shema said the event has attracted around 180 volunteers. Usually a little less than half are avid bird watchers, but he said it’s an excellent opportunity for novice bird watchers, too.

The Christmas count is done in 30-mile “count circles” across the United States, Canada and Mexico, according to Shema. There's no set date, but they all take place around Christmas time. Pittsburgh’s count is one of the largest bird counts in the country and will take place Dec. 26.

“It is done so that we can continue to monitor and compare to historic data," Shema said. "As bird populations change, we can begin to understand what the changes are in the population. and we can start looking for stressors that are in the environment that might suggest why those populations are starting to change, either up or down.”

Anyone can participate. Christmas Count volunteers will be given a checklist for commonly found bird species it identify. Counters will also be provided additional tools to determine if a bird is particularly rare, which they'll need to document. Data collected this season will be compared to records more than a century old.

Similar, fair-weather counts include the “Great Backyard” bird count in March, the “Project Feeder Watch,” the “Breeding Bird Survey” done in the summer by highly experienced bird watchers and the “Breeding Bird Atlas” done every 10 years or so by experts.

The Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania will also host a compilation dinner at 6 p.m. Dec. 27 at Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve in Fox Chapel to compile all of the datasets. Anyone can attend, even non-participants.