CHRISTMAS BIRD COUNT - A Citizen Science Project
On a cold Saturday in December, cars crept along the dirt roads of Windham County. Periodically they disgorged their occupants. Bundled against the cold, these people then craned necks as they studied the tree tops. They peered into thickets, stared at corn fields, and searched ponds and rivers. They were doing the Christmas Bird Count.
It all started in 1900. Back then it was customary for the “gentry” to choose teams and spend a day out-of-doors shooting at anything and everything that moved. The winning team was the one which could produce the most dead birds (or any other animals) at the end of the day. Frank Chapman thought there might be an alternative for this time of wildlife slaughter; he organized a Christmas bird count. Chapman was Curator of Birds at the American Museum of Natural History, editor of Bird-Lore magazine, and a founder of National Audubon Society.
The first CBC involved 27 people in 25 locations. 36 species were reported from Pacific Grove, California, the largest list of birds. Chapman himself had the second largest list; he reported eighteen species from Englewood, New Jersey. Today, the species count from Pacific Grove exceeds 170 species, and from Englewood the count exceeds 70 species. Last year in the United States, 646 species were tallied on CBCs, plus an additional 45 field-identifiable forms.
|American Redstart - first record for Brattleboro Area CBC|
The Brattleboro area did not participate again until 1948 when sixteen species were reported. In 1949, fourteen species were reported, and in 1953, eighteen species. The regular participation of Brattleboro area bird watchers in the CBC did not begin until 1963, but since then (with the exception of 1965 and 1969), Brattleboro area has participated every year. During the 1960s, the Brattleboro area averaged 30 birds. The average has increased steadily in the decades since: 1970s, 34; 1980s, 39; 1990s, 40. Since 2000, the average has been 56. This year at the end of the count day, the species tally for Brattleboro was 56. In nearby Bellows Falls, 64 species were observed.
The increase in the number of species can be accounted for, in part, by the growing popularity of bird watching and by the increased skill of the watchers. More skilled birders are going to find more species of birds.
|Canada Geese on Retreat Meadows|
Waterfowl need open water. When freezing temperatures come early and close the waters of the Retreat Meadows and Connecticut River, the number and variety of waterfowl is low. The lack of waterfowl reports from the mid-1960s through the 1980s suggests that during these years December was colder and winter came early. This year, with open water, there were over 500 Canada Geese counted in the Brattleboro area and over 1000 in Bellows Falls.
Through early December, many people remarked about the lack of birds at their feeders. The Brattleboro CBC confirmed this. The number of traditional feeder birds, such as chickadees and nuthatches was lower, but not unusually so. These birds were not seen at feeders. On several occasions, I heard a low chip. I “phished” loud and long, and soon the chickadees hurried over to investigate, along with companions such as Downy Woodpecker, a nuthatch or Tree Sparrow or cardinal.
While it often seemed that we had to search hard for birds to count, by the end of the day our count numbers were within the expected ranges. There were a couple of exceptions. Brattleboro CBC did not record a single Wild Turkey, but then, why should the turkeys come out of the woods if there is plenty of food in the woods? (It was recorded during count week.) Junco and goldfinch numbers were the highest recorded on a Brattleboro CBC. Bellows Falls also recorded unusually high numbers for these species.
|Snowy Owl - first record for Brattleboro area CBC|
A scientist might describe the data collection of the citizens on a CBC as a bit “loosy-goosy.” The counting is often imprecise guess-timates. Nevertheless, the CBC gives a snapshot of what is where and from accumulated data over a span of years, patterns emerge.
For example, the northward expansion and established year-round presence of southern species is evident in the CBC records: Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Mockingbird, and Carolina Wren.
The Bald Eagle, absent on CBCs prior to 2002, is now consistently observed. The breeding pair in the vicinity of the Vernon Dam have open water through the winter in which to fish, and remain on territory. With a pair now nesting north of Bellows Falls, the eagle is also being recorded regularly on the CBC in that area.
The Common Raven was silent 50 years ago in the West River Valley and surrounding hills. It reappeared on CBCs in the early 80s; the presence of the resident ravens is dependably heard in their “cur-ruk, cur-ruk.”
Finally - American Robin. People are often surprised to see the robin in winter. Don’t be. They are present on the CBC every year. Bellows Falls had a record number at 602. Brattleboro counted 99, not a record, but close to it. The robin may be seen during any month of the year.
For all readers worried about a lack of birds at the bird feeders, I say, “Don’t be.” The CBC suggests that the birds are still around, but there is plenty of natural food available. I’m sure they will be back. Except when humans really screw up the environment, the birds are resilient and adaptable. Their population numbers go through regular and natural fluctuations. Once the counters on a CBC thaw out and examine the count numbers, this is confirmed (for most species) year after year.
Stay warm, and if the birds don’t come to your feeders, go out and look for them. Good birding!!