For the Birds Radio Program: Christmas Bird Count 2003
Back in the 1800s, people engaged in a holiday tradition known as the Christmas “Side Hunt”: They would choose sides and go afield with their guns; whoever brought in the biggest pile of feathered (and furred) quarry won. But as the concept of conservation started to take hold around the turn of the 20th century, many scientists and other people were becoming concerned about declining bird populations. So beginning on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer in the brand new Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition-a “Christmas Bird Census”-that would count birds during the holiday season rather than shoot them.
On that very first Christmas Bird Count, 27 participants in places ranging from Toronto, Ontario, to Pacific Grove, California, counted about 18,500 individual birds of 90 species.
The Christmas Bird Count tradition thrived, and now over 50,000 observers participate in counting the birds in close to 2000 individual Christmas Bird Count areas in the United States, Canada, and even Central America. Each count area is a circle exactly 15 miles in diameter. The Christmas bird count period used to always begin on a Saturday, but beginning last year it will always begin on December 14 and last until January 5. This year several Christmas Bird Counts have already been held. The Two Harbors count last Sunday tallied an all-time high number of species for that count, 50. And they found several interesting birds—two different Red-bellied Woodpeckers, a Brown Creeper and a Brown Thrasher that hadn’t migrated further south yet, two Fox Sparrows, 2 White-throated Sparrows, five cardinals, and a Rusty Blackbird hanging out in various neighborhoods. A Horned Grebe and Harlequin Duck were in the lake. Winter visitors included a couple of flocks of Bohemian Waxwings, two Boreal Chickadees, a couple of Gray Jays and Black-backed Woodpeckers, and lots of White-winged Crossbills. Sadly, there were only 2 Evening Grosbeaks to be found.
Tomorrow is the Duluth Christmas Bird Count. The circle extends 7 ½ miles in every way from the center of the count circle at Hawk Ridge. My group will be scouring the upper Lakeside neighborhood all morning—unfortunately I have to quit at noon because the Symphony choir is having our dress rehearsal for The Messiah tomorrow, too. But most of the participants will be out there from sun up until sunset, searching the skies, the trees, the ground, and peeking into backyards in search of every bird in the area.
Of course it’s easy to miss a few things, and so if you have any good birds hanging out at your feeder or if you happen to spot an owl anytime tomorrow, it would be great if you could let us know. The Duluth Christmas Bird Count is compiled by Jim Lind. If you use the internet, go to www.duluthaudubon.org. Our calendar page has the count information and a link to Jim’s email address. Otherwise, you can email or call me Sunday with the information.
The Christmas Bird Count has tracked the population changes of many species over the years, from the upsurge in cardinals up here in the past decade to the decline in Evening Grosbeaks over a big chunk of their continental range. And the count shows where irruptive species such as redpolls are each winter. It’s one of the loveliest kinds of traditions, jolly fun for the people who join in while providing valuable scientific information. What better way is there to spend the Saturday before Christmas?