This is the time for the 115th annual Christmas Bird Count. For those of you who aren’t familiar with what is commonly called the Christmas Count a bit of detail: In the late 1800s eastern forests had been decimated by “cut and get out” logging; wildlife populations were under tremendous pressure from unregulated hunting, including market hunting; the passenger pigeon’s billions of birds were on the brink of extinction; the bison’s millions had been reduced to a remnant population in Yellowstone and in zoos and private preserves; egrets and songbirds were killed to adorn ladies’ hats. It was common for folks to take to the field on Christmas day, guns in hand, form teams and kill as many birds as possible. The team with the most birds won.
In an effort to reduce the slaughter of songbirds the early leaders of the Audubon Society organized the first Christmas Bird Census to count birds rather than kill them. In the intervening years the Christmas Count evolved into an effort to count all the birds in a circle 15 miles in diameter on one day. There are over 2,300 Christmas Count circles throughout the world, most in the United States and Canada.
Recently I participated in a Christmas Count I’ve been doing for over 30 years, covering the same portion of the circle for all those years, an area that I know well. It’s an interesting area with a diversity of habitats – mature woodland, cutover forest, tree plantations (young and old), cropland, abandoned fields, ponds, wetlands and small streams. Because of the diversity of habitats it offers a wide variety of bird species. The Christmas Count is great fun, whether I do it with friends or family or alone; a chance to revisit an area I like, wander through all those habitats and see other wildlife in addition to the birds.
It’s interesting to see the trends in bird populations as the habitat changes – as fallow fields are put back into agricultural production; after the owner of a large acreage clearcut a significant area; one year the ponds are frozen, the next they’re not; when new houses spring up in what had been fields or forest.
Some folks call the Christmas Count “citizen science” and researchers have spent countless hours and reams of paper and megabits of data compiling and analyzing the results. But, like all scientific efforts, the value is dependent on the quality of the data collected and how it’s used. But there are also serious concerns about the value of the data – especially about species that are hard to identify or uncommon in an area. Many people just don’t have the skill to identify species correctly, aren’t interested in being cold or wet or don’t cover their area thoroughly – is the information they collect worth having? How good is the “citizen science”?
Enough for the Scrooge stuff, for now I’m going back to photographing birds.