Birds & Birding

Give Kids the Gift of Birding

December 6, 2016

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Photo courtesy of Tom Rusert

The annual Christmas Bird Count is one of birding’s most cherished traditions. This year, consider introducing the count to a child. There’s no better time to get a youngster started in birding.

“When I was a kid in a large family of eight kids in Upstate New York, my parents told us we could do anything that cost less than $5; baseball, boy scouts, or birding,” says Tom Rusert of Sonoma Birding. “I joined Junior Audubon with my brothers, not realizing it would be a life sport to enjoy forever. It really is no different than any other sport.”

So began a lifelong passion for birds and conservation for Russert. The Junior Audubon program flourished for thousands of kids in schools across the US starting in 1910 but died out in the 1970s, leaving a significant gap in children’s nature opportunities.

Rusert and his colleague Darren Peterie at Sonoma Birding and Bird Studies Canada, are giving this opportunity back to children through the Christmas Bird Count for Kids (CBC4Kids) with hundreds of half-day events across the US and Canada from December through mid -January. Each child must be accompanied by a parent or adult mentor.

Why Kids? Why Christmas?

People put their money where their heart is. Those who have childhood experiences in nature are more likely to support conservation.

“We reach out to families and kids during the holiday season when they’re often tied up with material goods,” Rusert explains. “There aren’t too many things that parents can do to really engage with their each other. Kids get into electronic devices and they’re gone. The CBC4Kids offers a refreshing old fashioned community based, fun experience”

The Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is one of the oldest ongoing citizen science projects in the US, a birding tradition that began on December 25, 1900 as a holiday Christmas Bird Census. The long-term data over a wide-ranging area now available from these counts has provided vital information for conservation science, from uncovering declines in common birds to revealing where birds have moved in response to climate change.

Binocular Bootcamp at Pepperwood Preserve in California. Photo © Steve Murdock
Binocular Bootcamp at Pepperwood Preserve in California. Photo © Steve Murdock

It was while planning for the Sonoma Birding CBC that Russert and Peterie got the idea for the CBC4Kids. Some of the adult participants felt that the CBC protocols were too rigorous for young children. Fourteen children were turned away with the promise that there would be a special birding event for them over Christmas and nine years ago this year, the CBC4Kids was born.

“If we don’t get kids interested and fired up about nature now, the CBC will be history,” Russert says. “It will go the same way as Junior Audubon.”

They built the CBC4Kids as a grassroots movement — any community based organization can host a CBC4Kids by following the playbook — and it has taken o like wildfire. Last year there were more than 125 events hosted by national parks, wildlife refuges, birding clubs, museums, nature centers, public libraries, schools and more. That number grows each year.

The Bird Conservancy of the Rocky Mountains - CBC4Kids gathered together. Photo courtesy of Tom Rusert
The Bird Conservancy of the Rocky Mountains – CBC4Kids gathered together. Photo courtesy of Tom Rusert

What to Expect

“This is all about the kids experiencing the outdoors,” Rusert notes. “We really want families to discover the excitement of identifying local birds and truly enjoy the life sport of birding.”

The dates of CBC4Kids events vary by location, so check with your local organizations and nature groups to see if they are planning an event. In Canada, check this events map. If you can’t find one in your area, consider contacting Sonoma Birding for advice on getting one started or sharing the playbook with a local nature or birding organization, many communities are looking for meaningful fun activities that get families outside during the winter.

At the event, kids first participate in a “Binocular Bootcamp” to learn the basics of focusing binoculars and following moving objects. They then divide into at least two teams and head out for just 90 minutes of birding. The birding teams use a limited checklist of commonly sighted species and must agree as a team on each species sighted. Each year the kids get to grow their overall bird list. When the teams return to the base of operations, the children tabulate the results on a spreadsheet and then a boy and girl representing each team report their observations to everyone assembled at a ceremony. The data is submitted to eBird,, a widely-used database of birding observations by citizen scientists. All information is reviewed by experienced adult birders before submission.

The half day celebration ends with a fun activity that children will remember — it could be listening to audio recordings of birds or having a visit from a live raptor — something that the family will still be talking about over dinner.

“It is critical that families learn about citizen science together and for our CBC4Kids to be fun and sustainable and have a life of its own in communities everywhere,” says Russert.“This was a great life gift from my mom and dad and it matters today for our feathered friends and us more than ever.”

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa Feldkamp is the senior coordinator for new science audiences. She loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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2 comments

  1. Hi Lisa,

    The photo taken at Pepperwood Preserve was actually taken by Steve Murdock. I would love to send you the original with the watermark so he receives credit. Where can I email you?

    Thanks!