A gift of birds

  • Two black-capped chickadees perch in a shrub in Olmsted Falls, Ohio Friday, Jan. 8, 2010. Another blast of winter weather is forecast to bring additional snow to Ohio's lake shore areas Friday and into the weekend. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan) Mark Duncan—AP

  • A cardinal in winter. —pixabay.com

  • A bluebird —pixabay.com

For the Monitor
Monday, December 04, 2017

Many people experience December as a frenzied time of preparing for the end-of-year holidays. There are gifts to buy, decorations to put up, parties to plan, concerts to attend. In the midst of all of this flurry of activity some people take time out to watch birds. It is time for the annual Christmas Bird Count.

The Christmas Bird Count began more than 100 years ago as an alternative to a tradition called the Christmas Side Hunt. Back then hunters spent part of Christmas Day shooting birds and mammals to see which side or team could return with the most carcasses. It was a sport that had significant impacts on wildlife.

The late 1800s was also a time when many bird species were drastically declining due to the fashion of wearing feathers and other parts of birds on ladies hats. Concern for the fate of birds inspired some individuals to launch the first organizations to protect birds – among them the Audubon societies.

Frank Chapman, an ornithologist who worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York was among those whose alarm led to action.

In 1900, Chapman called for a different kind of contest and invited people to count birds rather than shoot them. Twenty-seven dedicated birders answered his call. They were scattered across the United States and Canada in 25 different locations, including Keene. On Dec. 25, 1900, the counters tallied 18,500 individual birds representing 89 species. Thus began the annual Christmas Bird Count, the nation’s longest running citizen science bird project.

Today, the bird count is administered by the National Audubon Society and has some fairly strict guidelines to ensure that the data which is collected can be a reliable source of information about early winter bird populations. The count does not happen only on Christmas Day but must take place between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. Observers visit different habitats and count a wide variety of birds, including songbirds, raptors and waterfowl.

To reduce the chance of the same bird being recorded more than once, participants work within a circle measuring 15 miles in diameter. Each count circle is subsequently divided up based on the number of observers available to cover that territory. The location of the circles remains the same each year so that data can be compared over time. During the 2016 count there were over 1900 circles within the United States.

New Hampshire currently hosts 21 count circles throughout the state. Anyone interested in joining one of these groups should contact the local coordinator. The locations and coordinator contacts can be found on page E4 and online at nhbirdrecords.org/new-hampshire-birding-resources/new-hampshire-christmas-bird-count.

Long term census data such as this is extremely valuable as a way to monitor population trends. Because some birds are “interruptive species,” exhibiting natural cycles with high numbers one year and much lower numbers the next, a short term view of populations can be deceiving. In addition some changes happen gradually and can only be detected through many years of observation.

With decades, and at a few locations, more than 100 years of data, ornithologists consider Christmas Bird Count data to be one of the best tools available for assessing the long-term trends in the early winter bird populations of North America. In some cases, as with the Evening Grosbeak, regional or wide spread population declines have been noticed, helping biologist to focus further study and conservation efforts.

Shifts in range and distribution of species has been documented through these census numbers. The northern range extension of the Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Mockingbird, Carolina Wren and Red-bellied Woodpeckers can be documented with bird count numbers. Increases in the number and distribution of introduced species such as the European Starling, House Sparrow and House Finch has also been recorded.

If you are interested in seeing data from past counts, visit netapp.audubon.org/cbcobservation. Local data can also be obtained by subscribing to the N.H. Bird Records at nhbirdrecords.org/subscribe-and-support-nh-bird-records/subscribe-and-support-nh-bird-records.

If you are too busy with holiday preparations to engage in the official count, it is still fun to take a break and appreciate the wild birds around us.

Thanks to Chapman and historical figures who promoted bird conservation instead of bird slaughter, as well as groups like N.H. Audubon who continue that work today, we can still enjoy the wonderful gift of birds.