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The Christmas Bird Count tradition

December 8, 2010

The first bird I remember identifying by myself was a Northern Shrike. I’m sure I’d identified other birds before—I heard Western Meadowlarks singing outside my bedroom window every morning—but this was the first time I was out birding with my family and confidently shouted out the name of a bird.  I think I remember the event because it was on a Christmas Bird Count.  We were trying to find as many species as possible in our area and it was the first shrike of the day.  I was six years old, and that was the start of my birding career.

That was also my first Christmas Bird Count, so that makes this year my fiftieth in that holiday tradition.  My father had started the Penticton count two years before that, in 1958, but I guess my twin brother and I were considered a little too green at four years old to be anything but a hindrance on an all-day count.  I don’t know if it was my initial success with the shrike, but I liked Christmas Bird Counts from the start, which was a good thing because they were as much a part of the holidays in our family as the tree and the turkey.  I liked keeping the growing list of species through the day, and I liked the pot-luck dinners after the counts, where each group would give an account of their day and the highlights. Occasionally we’d go up the valley to help the Kelowna club with their new count, or down to Vaseux Lake or Osoyoos to start new counts there.  Interestingly, the Christmas Bird Counts in these locations (and elsewhere across the country) were often the catalyst to forming local naturalists clubs that have served the area well over the decades.

Short-eared Owl at the end of a very cold day; Princeton, BC Christmas Bird Count, 22 Dec 2007

The counts were always a lot of fun—hard work in some cold years, but just enough friendly competition to keep things lively.  There was keen rivalry between Penticton and Vernon to see which count could get the top species total in the Okanagan Valley, a rivalry that added Kelowna and Oliver-Osoyoos to the mix as those counts matured.

Christmas Bird Counts were started in 1900 by Frank Chapman, one of the first environmentalists in North America.  He was concerned about a popular holiday pastime of the day, the Christmas Side Hunt, in which men would form teams, then see how many different birds  they could shoot on Christmas Day.  The first year saw 25 counts take part from all parts of North America.  The Okanagan Valley became involved in 1905 when bird collector and artist Allan Brooks started a count in Okanagan Landing.  My father took part in a few local counts in the 1920s and 1930s, but the local tradition lapsed during the Second World War.

Mark Gardiner scans the Similkameen Valley during the Apex-Hedley, BC Christmas Bird Count

By the time I was in university in the early 1970s I began dragging birding friends back from the coast for Christmas, ostensibly to help them celebrate the holidays, but really because I felt we needed more manpower on our counts.  My parents welcomed these guests, letting them sleep on the couch or on the floor, my mother quietly doubling the number of sandwiches she made before each count.  And that was doubly noble of her, since the Penticton count was often held on her birthday, December 27.  By the 1980s I was doing 5 or 6 counts every year—Vancouver and Squamish on the coast, then up to the Okanagan for Penticton, Vaseux Lake and Oliver-Osoyoos.

Northern Pygmy-Owl, Apex-Hedley Christmas Bird Count, 16 December 2008

Now, 50 years after that first count, I find myself doing 8 or 9 counts every year, and I’m happy to say my son is even more enthusiastic about them than I am (he does 10 or 11).  There are now a dozen or more counts done in the Okanagan Valley alone, over 380 in Canada, and over 2000 across the Americas.  I have somehow become the Canadian coordinator of the count through my work with Bird Studies Canada—a bit of a dream assignment for someone who’s been enjoying them for so long.

As coordinator, one of the commonest questions I get from participants across the country (and there are 12,000 counters in Canada alone) is “What are all these data used for?”  They know it’s a lot of fun, and they know it’s interesting to scan back across the years of data for your own local count, but the numbers gathered by all these people over the last century now form one of the biggest databases on the distribution of animals anywhere in the world.  Until recently, many bird biologists dismissed Christmas Bird Count data as near useless, having been collected by a bunch of amateurs, many of them under the influence of several rum-and-eggnogs. The protocol of simply having a 24-km diameter circle and a bunch of birders saying “Let’s find as many species of birds in one day in the circle as possible” seemed rather unscientific.  Fortunately, most of the team leaders on counts know as much or more about bird identification as university-trained biologists, and the data have proved to be a gold mine for various reasons.

The National Audubon Society, which has organized the count throughout its history, has recently analyzed the data to calculate population trends for many of the birds species on the continent.  This analysis has filled a huge gap; before it was done our population trend data for most birds came from the Breeding Bird Survey, which was only suitable for species breeding in the United States and southern Canada.  Many northern species weren’t covered adequately or at all; but most of these migrate south in winter to more populated parts of the continent, where they are tallied on Christmas Bird Counts.  I’ve used this analysis, and others done specifically on Canadian populations, when assessing species for the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.  The Rusty Blackbird and the Newfoundland subspecies of the Red Crossbill were designated at risk in Canada largely on the basis of Christmas count data.  And just yesterday I was using count data to demonstrate a dramatic population decline in the Western Screech-Owl in British Columbia and an equally dramatic increase in the number of wintering Western Bluebirds in Canada.  The National Audubon Society also recently completed an analysis that demonstrated the effects of climate change on bird populations—not surprisingly, the Christmas Bird Count database showed that many had shifted north in the past 40 years.

You can explore the database yourself, through the Results links on the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count page.  Or you can download past annual summaries of the counts.

The count season, the 111th in the long history of the Christmas Bird Count, begins again next week on the 14th of December.  I’ll be doing the Apex-Hedley count on the following day, counting chickadees and crossbills and looking for a nice subalpine fir Christmas tree at the same time.  The tradition continues.

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