Christmas Bird Counts in 2011

 

(This 1081st Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 11, 2011.)

 

A hundred years ago it was common practice for sportsmen to set out on Christmas day on what were called side hunts. Teams would vie to see which could shoot the most wild birds and animals, often including many non-game species. The team that won the contest was often commended in outdoor magazines.

 

Frank Chapman, a bird and mammal curator at the American Museum of Natural History, came up with a way to end this tradition. He called upon Audubon Society members instead to spend a portion of Christmas Day reporting the species and numbers of individual birds seen, as well as information about time in the field and weather conditions. The results would be published in Bird-Study, the forerunner of Audubon Magazine.

 

On Christmas Day 1900, 27 people took part in the first of those Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs as they have come to be known). They reported on 26 different localities, two in Canada and the others widely distributed among 13 states. One observer counted just three species, another four; the maximum was 36 in Monterey, California. The overall count total was 90 species, 18,500 birds.

 

Chapman's idea certainly took hold. In 2010-2011 more than 50,000 birders in North and Central America participated in 2215 CBCs, recording 61,359,451 birds of 646 species. And we no longer have holiday side hunts.

 

Soon after the counts began, the procedures were standardized. Now each is conducted within a 15-mile diameter circle. No longer are they restricted to Christmas Day. This winter, for example, they are scheduled between December 14 and January 5.

 

As the number of counts increased over the years, publication strained the Audubon Society resources and now the detailed listings of historical results are to be found at the website birds.audubon.org/cbc with only a summary publication distributed by Audubon. Participants now contribute $5.00 to cover compiling expenses.

 

On the website, maps also give information gained from the counts about bird distribution. As a research tool this data is invaluable, as it provides insights into trends in bird populations and distribution. It also gives us evidence about such things as the sporadic incursions of birds like snowy owls and evening grosbeaks from the far north, the advance of the so-called half-hardies like tufted titmouse and red-bellied woodpecker from the south, and the effects on bird populations of diseases like West Nile Virus and avian conjunctivitis.

 

But for individual birders it is simply exhilarating to get out on a winter day to record birds, no matter the weather. I have participated in about 50 of these counts since 1940. In that first year on a Rochester CBC Howard Miller led me through deep drifts into a gorge where snow melting from conifers drizzled down my neck. But all my discomfort was forgotten when we heard a loud whistle and soon the bird we were looking for, a beautiful male cardinal, appeared. It was my first observation of what was in those days a rare bird in New York.

 

You too can participate in what has come to be known as citizen science. Ten of these counts are scheduled for western New York and two others will be in nearby Canada. I offer here information about those counts. If you are interested in participating, contact the organizer. You do not need to be a birding expert as you will be assigned to a team leader who will welcome your assistance. Also, if you maintain a feeder within one of the count areas, you can report the birds you see on count day to the count leader.

 

Saturday, December 17

 

Beaver Meadow, leader: Chuck Bartlett, 754-7414 or bartlett@buffaloaudubon

 

Wilson-Lake Plains, leader: Garner Light, 491-4408 or garnerlight@hotmail.com

 

St. Bonaventure, leader: Regina VanScoy, 925-7109 or vanscoy716@hughes.net

  

Sunday, December 18

 

Buffalo, leader: David Gordon, 390-1429 or dgordonphoto@yahoo.com

 

Jamestown, leader: Bill Seleen, 664-4204 or wseleen@stny.rr.com

 

St. Catharines, Ontario, leader: Marcie Jacklin, 905-871-2577 or mjacklin@brocku.ca

 

Tuesday, December 27

 

Niagara Falls, leader (NY): Willie D'Anna, 751-3637 or dannapotter@wzrd.com; leader (Ontario): Kayo Roy, 905-892-4433 or kayoroy@niagara.com

 

Wednesday, December 28

 

Oak Orchard, leader: Celeste Morien, 585-721-8202 or tcmorien@gmail.com

 

Saturday, December 31

 

Hamburg-East Aurora, leader: Tom O'Donnell, tmodonnell@roadrunner.com

 

Sunday, January 1

 

Dunkirk-Fredonia, leader: Joanne Goetz, 673-1627 or goetz@netsync.net

Port Colborne, Ontario, leader: Drew Campbell, 586-441-8796 or drew.compbell@gm.com -- Gerry Rising