With thousands of birders joining forces all over the continent, the single biggest nature event of the year is upon us: the annual Christmas Bird Count.
The tradition started in 1900 when ornithologist Frank Chapman proposed an alternative to the recreational hunting of birds that usually occurred on Christmas Day. He enlisted the help of twenty-seven conservationists in twenty-five different areas. Rather than kill birds, the group simply counted them.
It’s a novel way for birders to spend their time. Most pursue the hobby individually or with a handful of friends. As January approaches, though, these separate efforts instead become channeled toward a single goal.
Sponsored by the National Audubon Society, Christmas Bird Counts now take place in every Canadian province and every state in the Union. In smaller states like Massachusetts, the combination of modest size and intense interest in birds means that practically every inch of the state is covered. In larger states, however, a birder may have to travel a bit to find a count, but the effort is well worth it.
The way Christmas Bird Counts work is that each group of birders adopts a circular piece of land with an area of about 177 square miles. Often the birders cover the same area year after year. In fact, many of the same count circles have survived for decades.
On a chosen day during the final two weeks of December ( Sunday the 14th this year), the birders then venture out and count as many birds as possible within their circle. The birders usually regroup at the end of the day and spend the evening eating, drinking, and the comparing their observations. For many participants it can be the social highlight of the birding year.
The Christmas Bird Count is not over, though, until the National Audubon Society publishes the results of the count in a yearly volume that birders and ornithological researchers alike prize.