Birding at Christmas Time

The day before Christmas, in 1922, two intrepid friends ventured out to count birds for the Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. They reported that it was a stormy day with a “strong south gale and driving rain…continuing all day, except for a brief interval in the afternoon.” It wasn’t, however, bitterly cold, but rose to as much as 50 degrees and hovered most of the day at 45 degrees. They headed first for the waterfront in Olympia and then drove outside of town to alternately drive and walk, covering a radius of sixteen miles of woods and prairies. They stayed out all day until the light began to fail. They saw a remarkable number of birds, a total of twenty-seven species and estimated more than a thousand individual birds.

It was Margaret’s first recorded participation in the Christmas count. She went with her friend and close neighbor, John Wilson. Other Audubon members and supportive bird lovers fanned out from their various locations across the country as well as from several places in Canada to count birds and create a snapshot of numbers and species to be found. Some had been doing this for two decades already.

You might well wonder why birders would do this census work in December. Wouldn’t many birds be absent, having migrated out of the regions for the winter months? That would be true but beside the point. To understand why this seasonal count took place—as it still does—at what seems like an un-seasonal time of year, it helps to know a little history.

It was once a Christmas tradition for the males of the family to head out to nearby fields and woods to shoot as many birds and animals as possible in a competition known as a “Side Hunt.” In this contest the “side” that amassed the largest pile of dead game was the winner.

Troubled by the slaughter and concerned about the threat to wildlife posed by such wanton killing, New York City’s American Museum of Natural History ornithologist Frank Chapman proposed an alternative activity that still involved tramping about the countryside in good company but involved counting birds rather than shooting them. Different groups from all over the country could then tally their finds and compare results. Not quite a competition but still featured bragging rights and a contest of skill.

Frank Chapman 1864-1945
Ornithologist, founder of the Christmas Bird Count, author of more than twenty bird guides about birds, editor of Bird–Lore
Photograph courtesy of BirdNote website

The first Christmas Bird Count took place on Christmas Day, 1900, and was considered a great success. Twenty-five different groups participated from all over the country and Canada. Most of the New England states saw counts as well as the Atlantic states and Mid-West, but Colorado, Missouri, Louisiana, and far-away California also fielded counts. A protocol for uniform reporting was instituted and results were published in the Audubon journal.

The tradition caught fire and has been carried out ever since, with more and more participants and growing enthusiastic support. It is one of the longest standing citizen science projects ever undertaken. The data is used to gauge bird populations and distribution—an ever more critical tool in these times of climate challenge—and guide conservation efforts.

Margaret and John Wilson reported a very successful day despite the bad weather:

Western Grebe, 1; Horned Grebe, 18; Glaucous-winged Gulls, 200 (est.); Western Gull, 50 (est.); Herring Gull, 100 (est.); California Gull, 50 (est.); Red-breasted Merganser, 2; American Scaup Ducks, 1000 (est.); American Golden-eye Duck, 200 (est.); American Coot, 5; California Quail, 10; Chinese Pheasant, 7; Ruffled Grouse, 1; Large Hawk, 1; Sparrow Hawk, 1; Red-shafted Flicker, 8; Stellar Jay, 2; Northwestern Crow and Fish Crow, 50; Shufeldt’s Junco, 3; Rusty Song Sparrow, 13; Seattle Wren, 5 (singing); Western Winter Wren, 16; Oregon Chickadee, 9;  Chestnut-backed Chickadee, 11; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 13; Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 9; Varied Thrush, 2.

All duly reported in the JanuaryFebruary, 1923 edition of Bird-Lore: An Illustrated Bi-Monthly Magazine Devoted to the Study and Protection of Birds, the organ of the Audubon Societies, edited by Frank Chapman and Mabel Osgood Wright.

The Christmas bird counts continue to this day. To learn more about the Christmas count, see your local Audubon Society’s webpage; the Olympia area count is described here:

A Pacific wren, photo courtesy of Audubon: Guide to North American Birds website

Margaret and John Wilson recorded seeing 5 “Seattle wrens,” all singing! Indeed, this bird is easier to hear than see, and if they sing long enough you can eventually find them half-hidden in nearby bushes. There are several native wrens in lower Puget Sound but none are now called Seattle wrens. Ornithologists change bird names as new knowledge about range and other habits inform descriptions and influence identifications. The Pacific wren may once have been the Seattle wren!

4 thoughts on “Birding at Christmas Time

  1. The Christmas Bird Count is a great adventure with a great history. Lots of birders do more than one a year. I’ll be doing my second this Friday. Getting together afterwards to share a hot meal and stories of the day makes it all the more enjoyable.


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