A hundred years ago, one needed only to look at the Christmas “side hunt” as evidence of that generation’s insanity. The hunt was a holiday tradition during the late 1800s. On Christmas Day, hunters would choose up sides, then head into the field and shoot everything in sight. At the end of the day, they would weigh the pile of dead animals, both feathered and furred, and the biggest pile won. The slaughter was indiscriminate. It didn’t matter if the wildlife was rare, useful, or edible. Victory went to the highest body count.
Naturally, this was a little hard on the wildlife population. A country accustomed to the blessings of abundant wildlife began to notice significant declines, leading to a rise in conservationism. Yellowstone became America’s first national park in 1872. Sequoia National Park followed in 1890. At the turn of the century, America elected Teddy Roosevelt, who went on to protect 230 million acres of public land.
Frank M. Chapman was the leading ornithologist of his day. He authored many books and pioneered the writing of field guides, beginning in 1895 with the “Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America.” It was Chapman who suggested the novel idea that birds could just as easily be counted alive as dead. In 1900, the Christmas Bird Count began with 27 birders. Today, more than 60,000 people participate in this holiday birding tradition, counting birds at more than 2,100 sites across the country.
Counts take place within circles, each with a diameter of 15 miles. Volunteers fan out along assigned routes to count every bird found. Some enthusiasts never leave the house, counting the birds coming to their feeders. Results are reported to the “compiler,” who totals them up and sends them to National Audubon. As science goes, this may not sound like precise methodology. Some routes aren’t covered and many birds aren’t counted, while other birds are inevitably counted twice. Big flocks must be estimated, and they cause problems when they move from one route into another. Think about the large flocks of crows that often wander around this time of year.
Fortunately, the sheer quantity of data trumps any deficiency in precision. With so many birders counting so many birds in so many places for so many years, scientists can reliably track trends. We can watch the range of cardinals expand over the last century, or the range of evening grosbeaks contract. In the 1980s, scientists became alarmed at the decline in the range and population of the American black duck, allowing early intervention to conserve and stabilize this valuable game bird.
Christmas Bird Counts have documented the crashing population of rusty blackbirds, a Maine species that is hard to assess on its breeding grounds. It’s wet, dense, and buggy in the Maine woods, making them hard to count in the summer. Providentially, rusty blackbirds flock together in the offseason and are easy to count on their wintering grounds in the southern United States.
This year marks the 113th Christmas Bird Count and it comes with two big changes. Historically, the results have been published by National Audubon in “American Birds.” The costs of printing and distribution have been covered by a $5 fee charged to the count volunteers. Beginning this year, participation is now completely free. Audubon will cease printing the publication and move the results online.
The Bangor area features two counts. Jerry Smith compiles the Bangor/Bucksport count. Paul Markson coordinates Orono/Old Town. I envy Bill Sheehan because he manages count circles in Presque Isle and Caribou/Limestone, and a lot of weird winter birds can show up there around Christmas. There are two counts for Acadia National Park, one on Mount Desert Island and the other on Schoodic Point. Some surveys are truly off the beaten track. Right after the New Year, Jeff Wells and a hardy bunch of birders will fly out to Matinicus to total up the winter bird population on the island. Hint: it’s not easy to count on frozen fingers. There are dozens more. I’ve posted the contact information at mainebirdingtrail.com.
A hundred years from now, how will future generations judge our present insanity? We can already see the direct effects of climate change. The greater scaup is a diving duck that is clearly declining because of melting tundra on its breeding grounds. On the other hand, perhaps future Mainers may thank us for the warmer weather while conducting the annual Christmas Armadillo Count.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with info at www.mainebirdingtrail. Reach Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org.