Friday, December 14, 2012

Counting Crows—and Wrens and Chickadees and More

Cooper's hawk (drawings by Sharon Parker)
Today begins the 113th Annual Christmas Bird Count, a comprehensive bird census conducted by fans of birds all over North America and coordinated by the National Audubon Society.

With tens of thousands of birding enthusiasts tallying up millions of birds, the count provides useful bird information to scientists, allowing them to track the distribution of birds in winter and bird population trends, which in turn can be indicators of threats not only to birds but to the environment in general.

But it wasn't really started as a citizen scientist project. Rather, American ornithologist Frank Chapman introduced the idea in 1900 as an alternative to the then-common tradition of the Christmas Side Hunt, in which gangs of hunters joyfully went forth on Christmas Day to slaughter as many small critters, both feathered and furry, as they could. The game was to see which party could count the highest number of little carcasses after the hunt.
Black-capped chickadee

The origin of that tradition may stem from the custom of hunting the wren on the day after Christmas in parts of the British Isles.

Chapman suggested that people skip the hunting part and just go straight to counting instead. Twenty-six others joined him on that first Christmas Bird Census—in Toronto, Ontario, and Pacific Grove, California, along with several cities in Northeastern North America. The number of participants has grown tremendously ever since.

Chapman was an officer in the recently formed Audubon Society, and he was among the scientists and amateurs in the fledgling conservation movement who were concerned about declining bird populations in North America.

The count continues through January 5 and anyone can participate. The Audubon Society website has all the details for those who would like to head out into the snowy field to count birds alongside fellow (peaceful) avian enthusiasts.

Don't look in pear trees for partridges to count, though. You won't find them there; they don't like to perch in trees.

Wild turkey

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