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The Annual Christmas Bird Count

It was a beautiful Christmas morning at Fresh Pond Reservoir in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Clear skies, very light winds out of the northwest, temperatures just above freezing. The pond was a busy meeting place for birds that day: mallards, black ducks, black-backed gulls, but especially American herring gulls. At 9:30 there were 250 of these, and by 11:30 their numbers had increased to 1,375.

The year was 1900, and the amateur ornithologist at Fresh Pond, Walter Deane, was one of 27 participants at the first Christmas Bird Census. In all, 25 reports were sent back from Ontario, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, and even California. The final tally that first year was 89 species and a stunning 18,500 individual birds.

The annual bird census was off to an auspicious start. As with many ideas that strike a chord and take hold, its story is one of individual vision and group advocacy that ultimately lead to change.

Wild birds and humans have not always enjoyed a peaceful coexistence, at least not from the birds’ point of view. In the 1800s hunters in many areas participated in the Christmas Side Hunt, organizing in “sides” and competing to see which side would shoot the greatest number of wild birds and other small animals. The winning teams were often featured in sportsmen’s magazines, along with photos of the hunters and their kill.

Puget Sound Christmas Bird Count circles.
Source: christmasbirdcount.org

As if that custom weren’t enough, by the late 1800s bird feathers had become prized fashion accessories. Unfortunately. getting them often required killing the birds, usually during their mating season when feathers tend to be more colorful.

Ornithologists as well as ordinary bird lovers were understandably alarmed.

Enter Frank M. Chapman, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In 1900 Chapman, founder of Bird-Lore, an illustrated bimonthly magazine dedicated to the study and protection of birds, conceived of the Christmas Bird Census as an event to counter the Christmas Side Hunts. The census was announced in Bird-Lore; counts were published in the magazine and made available to all.

Even though the reports did include interesting population data and unusual sightings, Chapman’s primary goal was to educate the public and to help change attitudes toward birds on what would turn out to be a grand scale.

Chapman also knew that for a new tradition to be successful, it needed to be fun. Following the first census, he wrote, “We trust that the spirit of wholesome competition aroused by Bird-Lore’s bird census added materially to the pleasure of those who took part in it.” The birders among us know that it did.

We can say with confidence, 118 years later, that Chapman’s vision has been an unalloyed success. Bird-Lore became Audubon Magazine, now just Audubon, and the Christmas Bird Count has continued uninterrupted, drawing thousands of participants every year and spurring interest in birds and wildlife. According to Audubon, at the 116th season (2015-2016), 76,669 volunteers tallied 58,878,071 birds in the United States, Canada, Latin America, the Caribbean  and Pacific Islands. And as Faye McAdams Hands of Tahoma Audubon points out, the annual count “has produced a treasure trove of data, especially showing trends, and is open and available to scientists everywhere, citizen or professional.”

The count takes place over a couple of weeks around Christmas. Count regions are divided into circles, each 15 miles in diameter; there are over 2,000 count circles in the United States, Canada and the other participating countries. A count compiler coordinates each count, assisted by volunteers who cover specific areas in the circle. You can count birds in your back yard if you are inside a designated circle.

This year’s count is set for Dec. 14, 2017 to Jan. 5, 2018. The actual count date varies from circle to circle, and can be found at christmasbirdcount.org. An interactive map will display the circles near your area, with the date and contact information.

So grab your binoculars and your field guides and join the fun!

If you want to go, there are two counts closest to the Key Peninsula:

Tacoma, run by Tahoma Audubon, Saturday, Dec. 16. The area includes Gig Harbor. Contact Faye McAdams Hands at zest4parus@hotmail.com.

Vashon Island, run by the Vashon-Maury Island Audubon Society on Dec. 31. This count includes the areas around Burley Lagoon, part of Henderson Bay and the waters around Gig Harbor; it will count aquatic birds as well as land birds. Contact: Diane Yorgason-Quinn, avosetta@hotmail.com.

Joseph Pentheroudakis is an artist and avid birdwatcher. He lives on Herron Island.

On the Wing
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