|Black Capped Chickadee
Four calling birds, three French hens, two turtledoves and a partridge in a pear tree
, the words to a popular holiday song? Not today, when theyre more likely to be results from the National Audubon Societys Christmas Bird Count!
Its a holiday tradition dating back more than 100 years, when Ohioans were among the very first to take part. This years bird count is underway through January 5, as more than 45,000 volunteers in all 50 states, Canada, the Caribbean, Central and South America and the Pacific Islands will join in the worlds oldest and longest running wild bird survey.
Counting birds is no fluff job. From dawn until dusk, teams of birding enthusiasts expert and beginners alike are responsible for counting every individual bird and bird species they see or hear within a defined geographic area known as a count circle. And, like the U.S. postal service, these volunteers do their job no matter the weather.
Bill Whan, editor of the Ohio Cardinal magazine, said the Christmas Bird Count is challenging and a lot of fun.
These are great opportunities for people to be part of an enormous national effort on behalf of wild birds, he said. Its also a good way for beginning birders to learn how to identify birds and how the count works.
Why a Christmas bird count? It began in response to a not so bird-friendly tradition of the 1800s. Local communities across America held annual Christmas Day events called side hunts. Going out as teams, participants combed the forests and fields shooting as many birds and small animals as possible in order to win prizes.
Recognizing that unregulated and indiscriminate killing seriously threatened the future of many bird species, ornithologist Frank Chapman of New York suggested an alternative: Counting birds instead of shooting birds.
On Christmas Day, 1900, Chapman and a flock of 27 like-minded volunteers put into play their fledgling plan, counting birds at 25 locations across the U.S. (including Oberlin, Ohio) and two Canadian provinces. On that day, a total of 90 bird species were counted and a new Christmas tradition was established.
In modern-day Ohio, its estimated that more than 1,000 volunteers lend their eyes and ears to count the states birds. Last year, 62 Ohio teams counted 148 bird species, which came out to be around 700,000 individual birds.
Spotting birds that are rare in winter such as the Virginia rail is a goal for some counters. Statistically, however, the presence of an occasional rare bird, while exciting, is not overly significant. Whan said its the number of common birds that tell the real story.
Count results are treasure troves of information for scientists, said Whan. The numbers enable experts to look over long periods of time and see how urbanization and climate change might be affecting bird populations.
Ohios count numbers are providing some positive feedback concerning the states Carolina wren and bobwhite quail populations, which were severely reduced by particularly harsh winters in the mid-to-late 1970s.
You dont have to be an avid birder or a birder at all to be part of this annual bird census. To help educate and improve accuracy, count organizers make an effort to pair experienced birders with beginners.
For those unable to get outside or who simply prefer the warm indoors, theres the option of being a feeder counter. The same rules apply as those in the field, except observers record the number of birds visiting backyard feeders in a 24-hour period.
Theres still time to be part of this years count. Call your local or state Audubon office or go online for information at www.audubon.org. Better yet, talk to someone you know who is already involved in birding. Chances are theyll be familiar with the Christmas Bird Count.