Why count birds at Christmastime?


By Becky Herman

Special to The SUN

Lately, some questions have arisen about the Weminuche Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count. Why in the world would we choose to have a bird count when the holiday season is upon us, when the summer months would provide a much greater variety of bird species and when the weather is, at best, iffy?

A historical perspective of this activity reveals some answers to these questions. What we today call the Christmas Bird Count started before the turn of the century as something quite different.

Bird-Lore, an illustrated bi-monthly magazine devoted to the study and protection of birds, described it this way in 1899: “It is not many years ago that sportsmen were accustomed to meet on Christmas Day, ‘choose sides’ and, then, as representatives of the two bands resulting, hie them to the fields and woods on the cheerful mission of killing practically everything in fur or feathers that crossed their path — if they could. These exceptional opportunities for winning the laurels of the chase were termed, ‘side hunts,’ and reports of the hundreds of non-game birds which were sometimes slaughtered during a single hunt were often published in our leading sportsmen’s journals, with perhaps a word of editorial commendation for the winning side.”

Bird-Lore goes on to recommend to its readers a radical change, a Christmas bird-census on Christmas Day and, before retiring at the end of the day, a report detailing the results of the hunters’ “side hunts.”

The idea of change was slowly becoming more attractive to bird enthusiasts. Conservation was in its beginning stages in that era, and many observers and scientists were becoming concerned about declining bird populations. On Christmas Day 1900, American ornithologist Frank M. Chapman’s proposed “Christmas Bird Census” would become a reality.

So began the Christmas Bird Count. Thanks to the inspiration of Chapman and the enthusiasm of 27 dedicated birders, 25 Christmas Bird Counts were held that first count day. The locations ranged from Toronto, Ontario, to Pacific Grove, Calif., with most counts in or near the population centers of northeastern North America. Those original 27 Christmas bird counters tallied around 90 species on all the counts combined.

And that’s why today’s birders count birds at Christmastime. The data that is collected every year is compared to data collected in previous years at the same time, in the same place, and, following established rules of observation, in the same way. This year’s count is the 119th since that first time. Those who participate in the count come away with a feeling of accomplishment for a job well done and the knowledge that their efforts pave the way for scientists to analyze and evaluate trends in bird populations as they reflect the earth’s changing ecology.

It’s not too late to contact Audubon Rockies’ Keith Bruno at (503) 729-8196 or kbruno@audubon.org to participate in the count on Saturday, Dec.15. It’s fun and rewarding.