by Alexandria Simpson
Imagine how you would feel if you wanted to learn more about birds but weren’t allowed to do so. This is just how fourteen kids from Sonoma Valley, California, felt in 2006. They were not allowed to take part in that year’s Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC). In this case, the decision by the organizers was somewhat justifiable because the young birders did not possess the rigorous skills needed for participation in this time-honored dawn to dusk "citizen science" tradition among birders.
But Tom Rusert, one of the Sonoma Valley California's CBC organizers, really disliked having to turn these kids and their parents away. He realized these young people were the future of birding, and thought, “Why not organize a special bird count just for youth?” Mr. Rusert, with the help of Darren Peterie, organized the first Christmas Bird Count for Kids (CBC4Kids) the very next year (2007). Its objective: “Have fun and potentially create a ‘hometown team’ of birders and conservationists for the future, while encouraging families to enjoy and respect nature together.” Five years later, the idea has spread around the U.S. and Canada. Mr. Rusert says, “We created a model that could be replicated. We want to see this go all over the world.”
He considers the CBC4Kids one of his biggest birding accomplishments. Apparently, the American Birding Association also thought so. In 2011, for his efforts with the CBC4Kids, Tom Rusert received the ABA’s Ludlow Griscom Award, given out only occasionally to someone who “dramatically advanced the state of ornithological knowledge for a particular region”. In reaction to receiving this award, Mr. Rusert says, “I was dumbfounded; most of the recipients are nationally and internationally renowned scientists.”
When I asked Mr. Rusert what his most memorable experience is from the CBC4Kids, he could not choose just one. His answer was more along the lines of a sense of seeing one’s hard works and efforts succeed and continue to grow, and the satisfaction of introducing more and more families to the joys of birding and nature. He mentioned things like “…seeing it being offered in Spanish and French in Canada…people returning year after year with the next set of kids old enough to participate…overwhelmed with excitement after the group presentations at the tabulation celebration.” He also indicated his pleasure in seeing “…parents and kids leaving the half-day experience really fired up to actually get out birding together, feeling confident with some basic skills, the right binoculars, and bird guides with a local list. It feels like a fun sport searching for different birds that they can all enjoy together for a long time.”
Of course, the CBC4Kids wasn’t the first program designed to involve kids in birding. You can read about one of the early efforts in the November 2011 issue of Birding. The article is about “Junior Audubon Clubs,” officially organized by the Audubon Society in 1910. Roger Tory Peterson, one of the best known birders of all time, participated in this program.
Tom Rusert did too; check out this photo of him as a kid participating in his “class.” He’s on the right holding the Screech-Owl. Now you know why he did not want to discourage young birders, and wants to give back what he received.
Are you interested in participating in the CBC4Kids. Or maybe you participate in a traditional CBC but would like to help organize or promote something for younger birders. With over 50 counts currently established, there might be a CBC4Kids near you. If not, why not help establish one? Mr. Rusert has a “playbook” to help get you started. He is happy to help coach and answer questions. A CBC4Kids does not have to be sponsored by a local Audubon chapter. Mr. Rusert said, “We really encourage community collaborations: any community organization, club, school, nature center, wildlife refuge, or recreation and parks department. Generally two or three groups work together, with only one of them being connected to birds. You also need adult birders that really care about kids enjoying the sport of birding to provide team leadership.”
Have any of you have participated in a CBC4Kids? Have you participated in a regular CBC that wasn't necessarily young birder-friendly (or that WAS young-birder friendly)? Share your experiences and your ideas for getting more young birders involved in this historic count.
About the author: Alexandria Simpson is an avid, sixteen-year-old birder from Santa Anna, Texas. While she wishes she could say she has been birding all of her life, instead she has spent the last four years making up for lost time. She wants to become an ornithologist and someday read scientific papers without falling asleep. Her photography, illustrations, and writings have won awards at local, state, and national levels. She currently serves as one of the student blog editors for The Eyrie.