Christmas is for the Birds

Many people around the world are gearing up to celebrate Christmas in a few days. Here in the United States, it’s traditional to put up and decorate a tree and give presents, of course, but did you know that many people before the turn of the 20th century celebrated the season by shooting birds and small animals? These so-called “side hunts” were competitions between teams of men to see which group could shoot the greatest number of animals.

Side hunt participant and his catch. http://www.islandguardian.com/archives/00005123.html
Side hunt participant and his catch. http://www.islandguardian.com/archives/00005123.html

This was a time when it was fashionable for ladies to wear feathered hats made from the plumes of breeding egrets or even entire birds and when sharp shooters were hired to kill bison to prevent them from interfering with the smooth operation of the railroads. The result was that, by the end of the of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, many animals were on the verge of extinction, animals no one thought could ever be wiped out, like the passenger pigeon. Things were changing, however. People were beginning to think differently about nature.

In 1900, a man named Frank Chapman, a trained ornithologist, organized an alternative to the side hunt. Instead of killing birds, he proposed counting them. This was the beginning of the Christmas Bird Count, which is currently in its 115th year and occurs throughout North America.

Brown creeper at Lookout Mountain Nature Center. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Brown creeper at Lookout Mountain Nature Center. Photo by Jamie Simo.

While the very first Christmas Bird Count happened on Christmas day, the modern Christmas Bird Count runs from December 14 to January 5 each year. During this period, participants conduct a survey of all birds seen or heard in a particular 15 mile diameter area from midnight to midnight of a chosen survey day. If you live within a count area, you can also submit data for the birds that come to your backyard feeder. The Christmas Bird Count is the longest-running citizen science survey in the world.

Flock of Canada geese at Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria, VA. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Flock of Canada geese at Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria, VA. Photo by Jamie Simo.

I participated in the last couple years of the Christmas Bird Count and, while I won’t be able to participate in this year’s count, I highly recommend it if you have some free time between now and the new year. Even if you’re an amateur birder, you’re still eligible to participate since amateurs are partnered up with more experienced birders. Also, since 2012, participating in the count is free. Audubon has a handy map on their website that shows a listing of the survey areas and gives you a way to sign up, so check it out. A thermos of hot chocolate in one hand and a pair of binoculars in the other is a great way to usher in 2015!

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