December: Count Your Birds

Winter is the time when birds lovers' thoughts turn to . . . well, counting the birds. The most important evaluations of the health of our bird population take place at this time of year. The best part is that you, too, can participate. You can count all the birds you see on one day (Christmas Bird Count) or you can count birds for one hour two days a week (Project FeederWatch). 

Left: An Acorn Titmouse hopes it gets counted this year (Larry Naylor)

Audubon's Christmas Bird Count takes place for one day between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. The Christmas Bird Count is highly organized in order to maximize the scientific value of the data collected. Local organizers set up “circles” 15 miles wide. The LA circle includes from downtown LA to the Santa Monica coast. Beside the LA circle, there are circles in Malibu (Dec. 17), Palos Verdes (Dec. 23) and Long Beach. Each circle's local compiler, who organizes the count, assigns participants to specific areas in the circle, according to their location and interests. Participants are trained in how to count and where, and newcomers usually are paired with experts. Though it is just a one-day effort, the Christmas Bird Count provides highly valuable data on the state of birds nationwide. Last year Long Beach and Los Angeles had some of the highest species counts with 179 and 176 respectively. ()

Project FeederWatch continues through the month until April. You can sign up at Project Feederwatch. New feeder watchers often ask, “How do I identify the birds I'm seeing?” Luckily, today science is on your side. Apps, such as Merlin by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, will identify birds by song and by photo.

                              Right: Dark-eyed Junco poses on a branch

With their charcoal hoods and pink beaks, plump little Dark-eyed Juncos certainly rank among the cutest of backyard birds. In the summer an industrious pair will set up a nesting territory in your yard and defend it vigorously, making repeated click-click-clicks if someone gets too close to their nest. But, in the winter, your Juncos will join a mixed flock that could include Bluebirds, Sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers and Goldfinches, all foraging together for seeds and worms. A well-stocked feeder can attract a wide variety of birds in the winter.


Left: Two Cedar Waxwings pass a berry

If you have berries of any kind in your yard, you might get a visit from beautiful Cedar Waxwings. They always move in large flocks, looking for fruits of native bushes, such as toyon, elderberry and mistletoe, among others. A large flock will perch together on a tree with berries, calling to each other and sometimes passing berries from bird to bird. 

Like many Easterners, American Robins have found Southern California to their liking, especially in the winter. In the last year, which was wetter than normal, robins were more common. Perhaps damp soil made their favorite foods, worms and grubs, more available. Robins like to forage on large lawns, where they will run along the ground, then stop suddenly to listen for worms. In winter they often join large flocks, sometimes mixing with Cedar Waxwings.


                     Right: A White-crowned Sparrow looks for seeds

Winter is the time for more ground-feeding birds, such as Towhees, Juncos and the White-Crowned Sparrows. A combination of millet and sunflower will appeal to the ground feeders. A raised or hanging platform means they can feast safely, away from wandering cats.

Your feeder may have been a bit neglected of late, because birds can find lots of mature natural foods in the fall. However, look to a return of your regulars, as the rainy season will have birds needing extra calories. Time to add suet bits or blocks to give them the extra fat that they need.

The Geminid Meteor Shower peaks for just two days, Dec. 14 and 15, this month. The show is said to rival the summer Perseids, so it maybe worthwhile to bundle up and go out in the cold December night to view them. A slim crescent of a moon is their only rival this year.