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One Bird, Two Bird, Red Bird, Blue Bird

Photo: Great blue heron enjoying the Christmas Fish Count.

Article by Shelly Forster

Modern Americans typically view Christmas as a time for peace, spending time with loved ones, and spending a pretty penny. Christmas Past, however, has its skeletons hidden in the closet. In the late 1800s, for example, families would join together, gather up their munitions, and obliterate woodland creatures. Prior to 1900, the ‘side hunt’ was a popular Christmas tradition in which outdoorsmen would come together, divide into teams, and tear through their favorite hunting ground, mowing down all living creatures in their path. The team or individual with the most consequential pile of carcasses at day’s end was the victor of the side hunt. In most cases, birds would fall victim to the hunt and, in especially ‘fruitful’ hunts, hundreds of nongame birds were massacred.

In 1900, noting drastic declines in game and bird populations, ornithologist and Audubon Society member Frank Chapman, decided to perform a new kind of Christmas hunt. Rather than view birds through a scope, “hunters” would take aim at birds with their binoculars and tally all species and individuals they saw. Thus, the Christmas Day Bird Count was born. The 27 participants in the first Christmas Day Bird Count recorded 90 bird species. Since then, the count has grown to last year’s record size when 63,223 volunteers performed counts spreading from the Arctic Circle to the tip of Argentina. What began as an alternative to gratuitous slaughter is now the largest and longest-running animal census on Earth.

Photo: Two birds in the bush are worth one in the pot.  Why does Mike Rolfs happens to have this picture? That's a long (and different) story, but it happened to complement the  gruesome nature of the side hunt.

The Audubon Society manages the Christmas Bird Count, but each census event is completely volunteer-run. As such, the CBC is one of the largest Citizen Science programs in America. Data from the CBCs are publicly available on the Audubon website for answering research and birding questions, and have been used to generate hundreds of scientific publications. In addition, CBC results are critical to federal wildlife management. CBC observations were instrumental in listing bald eagles as an endangered species, and in recording their subsequent recovery. The EPA is now using data from the Christmas Bird Counts to track bird responses to climate change.

As if a chance to perform science without first investing 7 years in a PhD wasn’t incentive enough, here are some more reasons to join the 113th CBC:

1. For the first time since 1955, it’s free to participate.

2. It’s a valid excuse over the holidays to spend time outdoors away from family (who may be driving you crazy) and away from food (that may be driving you fat).

3. Rookie birders can be paired with an experienced bird nerd to learn the basics of bird observation.

4. Birds are around us all the time but, without making an effort to observe them, we rarely notice their presence.

5. Most local CBCs end in a potluck (so much for avoiding food).

To help with a Christmas Bird Count this year, you must join a registered count. Each count is an official census of a regulated circle 15-miles in diameter, and data is only considered valid if it was collected within the pre-established plot. Most observations are made by a team, but individuals can also submit observations made from home if they live within an established census plot. Christmas Bird Counts run from December 14 to January 5, and each site collects data for a 24-hour period. Prior birding experience is helpful but new birders can be paired with battle-hardened bird hounds to learn the ropes. To participate, be sure to sign-up in advance.

Here’s a schedule of Audubon Christmas Bird Counts in NCW this year:

December 15 – Bridgeport. Contact Meredith Spencer at merdave@homenetnw.net or 686-7551. Meet at Brewster McDonald’s at 7:00 a.m. for assignments and finish the day at Mike and Leslie’s for another marvelous dinner.

December 16 – Moses Lake. Contact Doug Schonewald at dschone8@donobi.net or 766-0056. Soup feed following the count! This is the last year Doug will compile the Moses Lake count.

December 23 – Twisp. Contact Leahe Swazye at leaheswayze@gmail.com or 997-2549. This is the 25th year for the Twisp CBC and all past compilers are invited/encouraged to attend. Potluck follows the tallying.

December 23 – Leavenworth. Contact Gretchen Rohde at design@thedesignranch.com or 393-0088 for routes. Meet at the Lorene Young Audubon House (at Barn Beach Reserve) at 4:30 p.m. to compile the data.

December 28 – Chelan. Contact Dan Smith at ptsnorth@flymail.net. Meet at the Apple Cup Café at 7:00 a.m. and be sure to attend a free hot meal at 4:15 p.m. at the United Methodist Church.

December 31 – Wenatchee. Contact Dan Stephens at dstephens@wvc.edu or 782-4890 for more information.

January 3 – Grand Coulee. Contact David St. George at dstgeorge@TNC.ORG for more information.

January 5 – Omak. Contact Heather Finley or Todd Thorn at heather@eaglesun.net or 429-8167. Meet before and after the count at Heather and Todd’s house in Okanogan.

More information:

Find other counts anywhere from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego.

Summary of Western region results from the 112th count.

A note from the Audubon Society president about why he loves the Christmas Bird Count and why you should, too.

For a humorous read on the classic tale of Man vs. Bird vs. Self, check out this article from our archives.