I’m writing today about a Christmas tradition that is exactly 108 years old. It’s not shrouded in mystery, like dragging a live tree into the house and putting lights on it—whose idea was that? We know exactly how the tradition I’m writing about got started.
The year was 1900, and it was the custom among sportsmen of the time to engage in what was called a ‘side hunt’. They would choose up sides and go out into the fields and whoever brought in the biggest pile of dead birds and critters won the friendly competition.
A man by the name of Frank Chapman, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History, proposed an alternate activity to the side hunts: a competition among teams to count birds rather than shoot them. Because of his promotional activity, twenty-five Christmas Bird Counts were held in 1900.
That first year, the counting region was limited to northeastern North America, but in the intervening years, it has spread across the United States, Canada, and 19 countries in the Western Hemisphere.
The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is a program of the National Audubon Society. It is held in specific 15-mile-diameter circles. Each circle has a particular day in which the count will be held and is led by a Count Compiler. The CBC is staffed by volunteers who go out and tramp along a specified route through the circle, counting every bird they see or hear all day. Neophytes and wannabes who trip over sticks and couldn’t tell a crow from a jaybird are paired with more experienced birdwatchers, and the Count Compilers ensure that proper methodology is followed.
If you happen to live in one of the counting circles and have a bird feeder, you can register and participate by counting the birds that visit your feeder. But, you have to register beforehand, live in the circle, and count on the proper counting day.
To find out more about the Christmas Bird Count, click here. If you think it’s something you’d like to do, click on Get Involved on the left hand side bar. At the bottom of the Get Involved page, you will see a button that says Count Date Search. Click on that button, and pick your state, and it will show you the circles in your state. Some will already have been counted, but others have yet to be done, because the counting dates continue until January 5.
If you click on a circle that has yet to be counted, it will give you the name of the Count Compiler and a way of contacting that person. You can find out from him/her about whether there's room for you to join them and what you have to do to register.
There is a $5 charge to be able to participate. This covers the cost of census materials and also helps pay for the web site.
Here’s a chance to be of service to your nation, to science, and to Mother Earth. Never mind that it involves long periods of time standing in the woods in December. You’ll be warmed by the thought that you’re keeping up a grand tradition and that you’re making a contribution.
You’ll notice I said ‘you’. My bird feeder isn’t in an official circle, so I won’t be counting from the comfort of my armchair. But I’d love to hear from any hardy soul who decides to join in the CBC.
I'll cheer you on and send warm thoughts your way.