by: Libby Buck, Ecological Stewardship & Research Technician

The National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count just celebrated its 120th birthday, making it one of one of the longest running citizen science projects. Up until 1900, it was a Christmas tradition for hunters to go out on Christmas Day and hunt as many birds as they could. People became very concerned with bird population decline, especially ornithologist Frank Chapman, who proposed counting the birds instead of hunting them. From that day forward it became known as the “Christmas Bird Census” which has now evolved into the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) that we know today.

Nantucket Christmas Bird Count- Folgers Marsh
Photo: Tucker Taylor

The requirement of having the bird count on the actual day of Christmas has changed over the years and now it can be conducted during the census period between December 14th– January 5th. This allows for more flexibility with schedules and also makes it easier for people to join many CBC counts. Also, there is the “count day” and the “count week.” The “count day” is the official day of the count and is a 24-hour period, whereas the “count week” is three days before and after the set date for the “count day”. The count week helps with birds that may have been seen before the count but was not seen on the day of the count. Once the date is set, the count happens no matter what the weather is. When it comes to the CBC there is always the hope for a nice day but birders can be tough as nails: they will bird-watch whether there’s rain, sleet, snow, or bitterly cold temperatures, because the count must go on!

Nantucket has been participating in the Christmas Bird Count since 1954 and many birders “flock” to the island just for the bird count in hopes of getting rarities. This year over 50 volunteers participated, including three members of the NCF science staff. On the count day, the island is divided up into eight different sections, each with its own team. This year the official count day was on December 29th with a total of 128 species for the day. Including the count week birds it came to a grand total of 139 species!

Highlights for count day included Common Gallinule and Eurasian Wigeon, both at Miacomet Pond; Tufted Duck, two Long-billed Dowitchers, and a Lincoln’s Sparrow. The special count week birds included a Black-throated Blue Warbler, White-eyed Vireo, and a tragic story of the Western Kingbird. The Western Kingbird was assumed to be the same individual that was spotted earlier this year during Vern Laux Memorial Birding Weekend (November 8th). It was seen again the day before the CBC and while it was being observed by many birders they watched in awe and horror as it became lunch for a Merlin. No one expected that turn of events, so unfortunately it only made it to count week, and not count day. You can always expect the unexpected during the Christmas Bird Counts!

Common Gallinule
Photo: Libby Buck

The Western Kingbird from Vern Laux’s Memorial Birding Weekend
Photo: Libby Buck

If you would like to volunteer to be a part of future Nantucket Christmas Bird Counts, please contact Edie Ray ( or Kenneth Blackshaw ( Without the efforts of the compilers, coordinators, and volunteers these Christmas Bird Counts would not be a reality. Please consider joining us for a future count! The data collected by observers 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.

Quidnet Team for the 2019 Nantucket Christmas Bird Count
Photo: Allison Black

If you would like to learn more about the Christmas Bird Counts please visit:

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions and land management efforts.

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