Story and Photo
                          by Bob Duchesne

     Don’t be too surprised if a birder wanders through the neighborhood this month. The annual Christmas Bird Count will put hundreds of Mainers out on the street over the last few weeks of the year, as it has for the past 118 years.

     Binocular-toting bird buffs will fan out along assigned routes to count every bird they can find. Other folks will just tally birds at their feeders. Counts take place within circles, each with a diameter of 15 miles. The results are compiled and sent to National Audubon. It’s an imprecise methodology. Doubtless, many birds are missed and some are double-counted. But the volume of data is so large that minor mistakes are imperceptible. The results are good enough that scientists can track what’s happening on the landscape, especially since this count has been going on for so long.

     The Christmas Bird Count started long ago as an alternative to the Christmas “side hunt.” The side hunt was a holiday tradition during the latter half of the 19th century. On Christmas Day, hunters would choose up sides, go into the woods, and indiscriminately shoot everything they could find. At dusk, the piles of slaughtered critters were weighed. Whoever had the bigger pile of dead animals won. Admittedly, this was a little hard on the wildlife. 

     By the dawn of the 20th Century, American citizens were beginning to wake up to the consequences of such wasteful behavior. What had seemed like a limitless supply of wildlife was now clearly limited. A conservation ethic began to rise throughout the country, slowly at first, beginning in the late 1800s. Yellowstone was the first national park to be established, but it was another 18 years before Sequoia National Park would become the second. The pace picked up when Teddy Roosevelt became president; he went on to protect 230 million acres of public land. Some of the most fundamental conservation laws and international treaties went into effect during the same period. 

     Today, more than 60,000 people participate in the Christmas Bird Count nationwide. But it all started in 1900 when 27 enthusiasts inventoried the birds in their neighborhoods – the idea of Frank M. Chapman, America’s leading ornithologist in his day. While Roger Tory Peterson is famous for making bird guides popular, it was Chapman who wrote the first one, some 40 years before Peterson. As an alternative to the “side hunt,” Chapman suggested that birds could just as easily be counted alive as dead. 

     While the founding principle of the Christmas Bird Count was to promote new ways to enjoy wildlife without gunfire, it quickly turned into one of the earliest and biggest citizen science initiatives in history. A winter count meant the birds were stationary. Migration was over. Birds that winter in the tropics were gone. Many of the remaining North American species joined big, easily countable flocks in winter. 

     For instance, rusty blackbirds breed in cold northern forests. On their summer breeding grounds in the Maine forest, they’d be impossible to survey. In winter, they often join large flocks of other blackbirds, feasting on grasses and leftover grains across southern agricultural areas. It was the Christmas Bird Count that tipped off biologists that this species was disappearing rapidly. Between 1966 and 2014, nearly 90% of rusty blackbirds vanished. 

     Over the last 118 years, we’ve watched the rise and fall of evening grosbeaks. We’ve noted the range expansion of northern cardinals. Cardinals weren’t nesters in New England until the early 1950s. Nowadays, their territory extends into Canada. 

     Sportsmen have benefited from the Christmas Bird Count. The American black duck – a popular game bird – was found to be declining nearly as fast as rusty blackbirds, with an 84% decline over the same period. In this case, it appears conservation measures were established in time to save the bird. More recent counts indicate the population has almost stabilized. 

     Where once overhunting might have challenged bird populations, today’s chief culprit is more likely to be global warming. All those birders tracking the black-capped chickadee through your neighborhood are giving us a window into the future. Some forecasts contend that the Maine state bird will disappear from southern Maine within a generation. 

     The Maine forest is a complicated place. Because birds are mobile and easily detectable, they often provide the first clues to changes that should concern us.  And there is no science easier and more enjoyable to conduct than the Christmas Bird Count – now in its 119th year.  

     To find out more about participating in the bird count, which will take place between December14 and January 5, click here.

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