My Holiday Tradition: The Christmas Bird Count

My name is Virginia Rose. I was paralyzed in a horseback riding accident when I was 14 years old and have used a manual wheelchair for 48 years. About 18 years ago, I joined Travis Audubon Society (TAS) in Austin, Texas, where I learned how to bird and discovered my best self and my greatest happiness. I love it so much that I created a tradition to share it with more people  

Birding brought me a reason to be outdoors. I’d explore new parks alone or with new, like-minded friends. I find it so absorbing to intently listen to and watch birds as I work to identify them. Through birding, I discovered friendships, community, lifelong learning and purpose—and the stunning beauty of my feathered friends.  

To spread my love of birding to other people with a variety of accessibility needs, I founded the nonprofit Birdability about three years ago. Our mission is to share the joy of birding with everybody. This year, I’m starting a new tradition within Birdability—a Christmas Bird Count for people with accessibility challenges. 

The idea of a holiday birding tradition came to me when I began leading monthly Birdability outings in 2018. During these excursions, I witnessed strangers gather on the trail to discuss their various disabilities and their recommendations for the best backpacks, gloves, shoes, rain gear and coffee cups. Together, we explored the accessible birding sites in the Austin area. In the process, we discovered new relationships, new abilities, and richer, more empowered lives. Our worlds became bigger because of it. It was then that I thought: Oh my gosh! This is more about the people than the birds! Of course! 

To continue connecting folks to birding and each other, I decided to create the first Birdability Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The Christmas Bird Count originated as a hunters’ tradition. But as the conservation movement grew, the tradition changed. As of Christmas Day 1900, participants began counting birds instead of hunting them. The count is used to assess the health of bird populations and to help guide conservation efforts. CBCs are an important local community birding tradition held nationwide by the National Audubon Society.  

I’ve participated in bird counts in the past, but I wanted to create an event that more people could enjoy. Enter, my new tradition. This bird count is designed to be welcoming to people with accessibility challenges. For every event, there will be teams nationwide that each have a captain, and that captain will help determine a local site that is accessible for birders of all abilities. People can participate for as long or as short a duration as they like. 

The camaraderie of these local counts is special. I want to include people with accessibility challenges in all aspects of birding, but especially in national, long-established traditions that connect birders more solidly in their local communities. I’m excited to celebrate this for years to come. 

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