Bird Watcher's General Store

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Christmas Count

Dear Bird Folks:

Last week I was walking on the beach with my dog (my dog is a lab, so don’t make any cracks about it wearing a sweater) when I came upon a group of bird watchers. Since the weather wasn’t very nice, I thought they must have come out to see some rare bird. When I asked what was going on, they just replied “Christmas Count” and kept staring out at the water. Trying to appear knowledgeable, I replied, “Oh,” and kept walking down the beach. What is this Christmas Count and why did so many people need to be out there on such a nasty day?

– Jill, Boston


Come on Jill,

Again with the dog? Two weeks ago we had a letter from another dog walker. What is going on? Is there some kind of national fad that I’m missing? Can’t anybody go outside anymore without having a dog with them? At least your lab wasn’t wearing a silly sweater. It was probably wearing a lab coat instead.

What you witnessed, Jill, is an annual event that started way back when McKinley was president and has continued nonstop to this day. The Christmas Bird Count has contributed tons of information to the world of science and natural history. Yet it is all done by volunteers.

Just over a hundred years ago, when thoughts about wildlife conservation were as well received as Confederate money, some people would spend Christmas Day participating in what was called a “side hunt.” The goal was to go out and shoot every creature wearing fur or feathers. At the end of the day, whoever had the largest pile of dead things was declared the winner. Nice, eh?

Then in the year 1900, along came ornithologist Frank Chapman, who, through his magazine, “Bird Lore,” challenged people in Canada and the United States to go out on Christmas Day to count birds instead of shooting them. Evidently, counting birds on a cold winter’s day sounded just as boring back then as it does now. Between the two countries Frank was able to get only 27 people, including himself, to go out and count birds. But Frank wasn’t about to give up and the count continued every Christmas Day from that day on.

Now, 104 years later, the count is going strong. Old Frank would be thrilled to learn that there are now close to 55,000 people from Canada to South America participating in his Christmas Bird Count. (Although I’m not sure if people have become more environmentally concerned or they just want to get out of spending the entire day in the house with Aunt Martha.)

The rules for counting are simple. Several groups of birders head out before sunrise to cover a predetermined 15-mile area. They count every single bird they see before the sun sets. At the end of the day, everyone who hasn’t succumbed to frost bite gathers to add up all the birds that were seen.

Why, you ask? Why would anyone want to be outside all day counting birds and freezing? How bad can Aunt Martha be? The information gathered from these counts is invaluable. Over the 104 years that this count has been taking place, scientists have been able to identify bird population trends, both good and bad. Twenty years ago, the Christmas count did not find a single bluebird anywhere in Massachusetts. Last year over 1,700 were seen. That is clearly good news for bluebirds. Not all of the trends are that positive, but we don’t need to get into that right now. Let’s not spoil what’s left of the holidays.

More than 30 Christmas counts are held each year in Massachusetts, with at least four here on Cape Cod and several around Boston. And guess what, Jill? You or anyone else can participate. (Relax, very few counts are held exactly on Christmas Day anymore.) All you need to do is sign up with an official, organized group and dress warm. Counts can be a lot of fun and, if you survive, very rewarding. And who knows, maybe you’ll get lucky and meet someone else who can’t go outside without having a dog with them. There sure doesn’t seem to be any shortage of them.