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Get ready to count birds

A black-capped chickadee rests on a bird feeder during a snowy day. (photo by Kit Murray)

On Tuesday, Dec. 20, the Red Wing Audubon Chapter's monthly program will feature the Christmas Bird Count. The CBC is a long-standing program of the National Audubon Society, with more than 100 years of citizen science involvement. It is an early-winter bird census, where thousands of volunteers across the U.S., Canada and many countries in the Western Hemisphere go out over a 24-hour period on one calendar day to count birds.

Steve Weston, an avid birder who has participated in approximately 100 Christmas bird counts, will be the presenter. West has participated in all of the recent counts in the Red Wing area and is the statewide coordinator for CBC.

He will give a short history of the CBC and what the data collected tells us. He will present some of the bird identification challenges the region has and will share what has been found in the Red Wing area.

Weston also will tell us how you can participate. If you are a beginning birder, you will be able to join a group that includes at least one experienced birdwatcher.

There is an interesting history behind the Christmas Bird Counts. Prior to the turn of the 20th century, hunters engaged in a holiday tradition known as the Christmas "Side Hunt." They would choose sides and go afield with their guns — whoever brought in the biggest pile of feathered (and furred) quarry won.

Conservation was in its beginning stages in that era, and many observers and scientists were becoming concerned about declining bird populations. Beginning on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, an early officer in the Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition — a "Christmas Bird Census" that would count birds during the holidays rather than hunt them. So began the Christmas Bird Counts we know today.

Each count takes place between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5 and is organized by a count compiler. Count volunteers follow specified routes through a designated 15-mile (24-km) diameter circle, counting every bird they see or hear all day. It's not just a species tally — all birds are counted all day, giving an indication of the total number of birds in the circle that day.

The data collected over the past century allow Audubon researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent's bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years. The long-term perspective is vital for conservationists. It informs strategies to protect birds and their habitat and helps identify environmental issues with implications for people as well.

The 7 p.m. event is open to the public and will take place at the Red Wing Conservation Club, 1010 E. Fifth St.