Nature Nut: Bird counts have become an affirming holiday tradition

December 23, 2018 GMT

With the holiday season upon us, it is nice to know that not all traditions have withstood the test of time. In the late 1800s, a holiday hunting tradition known as the Christmas “Side Hunt” took place each year. Sides were chosen, and whichever team came back with the most dead feathered or furry specimens was declared the winner.

At that time, and for previous centuries, shooting birds of any species was quite acceptable. In the mid-1800s, John James Audubon shot more than a thousand birds he painted for his monumental work, “The Birds of America.”

Oddly enough, in spite of shooting all the birds he did, Audubon recognized the importance of habitat. He noted in his journal that it was “civilization’s rapid advance across the continent — more than men’s guns — that would extinguish entire habitats and their inhabitants.” So right he was, almost 200 years ago.


Fortunately, in 1900, Frank M. Chapman, an officer in the recently started Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition. A “Christmas Bird Census” would count rather than shoot birds during the holidays. As conservation became more recognized, the count soon became the Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

This count ultimately replaced the “Side Hunt” and has now become what I would guess the longest running citizen science experiment in history. One-hundred and nineteen years of valuable bird data is now available to scientists throughout the world, much of it used to assess the status of birds, and even to support climate change data.

Some interesting data from last year’s count indicated a record 2,585 counts were submitted, including 1,957 from the U.S., with the rest from Canada, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific islands.

A record number of counters, 76,987, also participated, with 51,978 from the U.S., including 43 from Rochester. Some 59,242,067 individual birds of 2,673 species were counted, with 666 species seen in the U.S.

Count data shows bobwhite quail are still declining in numbers, while Eurasian collared doves continue their northward movement, with the first record of one seen this year for the local count.

Crow and bald eagle numbers continue to climb, and occasional new birds, like the nazca booby seen in San Diego last year, add to the growing species list. Incidentally, San Diego, where my son, Bryan, surveys bird habitats for the Navy, is usually in the top five counts in the U.S., with well over 200 species.

I have probably participated in most of the past 30 counts, as I did this past Saturday, beginning as usual with a morning gathering of a couple dozen folks at Silver Lake. There, the count organizer, Cliff Hansen, sent off nine groups to each survey a piece of a 15-mile diameter circle emanating from Rochester. Some of the counters, including two friends I hooked up with, Dave Nelson and Jim Peterson, had already gone out in the dark to get owls by playing their calls for responses that were acceptable to count.


Spending the morning with Dave and Jim, mostly driving, we were pleased to get 25 species, with a couple robins, a red-breasted nuthatch, and some cedar waxwings being our highlights. We then gathered with the other count teams for lunch at Quarry Hill.

This year’s halftime species tally was in the low 40s, with those going out in the afternoon bringing the total to 52. Cliff noted that “of the just over 10,000 birds counted, 3,340 were Canada geese, 1,556 crows and 1,094 starlings.”

My recollection was a few years ago the local count occasionally exceeded 60 species, probably, in part, due to more waterfowl seen on Silver Lake when it was still open.

If you are interested in participating in a bird count, you can take part in the Whitewater count, which begins at the Visitor Center at 8 a.m. on New Year’s Day — a good way to start the year. Just show up and you can probably tag along with one of the groups going out.