What began as a competition to see who could shoot the most birds each Christmas has evolved into a science and bird conservation project that encompasses North and South America.
For the past 113 years, the National Audubon Society has sponsored the yearly Christmas Bird Count. Its purpose is to take a census of birds to show which species are growing or declining and serves as an indicator of environmental changes.
Those participating this year are asked to hold their bird counts between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. A number of volunteers in Washington and Greene counties are taking part, fanning out in designated 15-mile-wide circles to record the species they see.
Armed with a small notebook, pen and pair of binoculars, Bob Mulvihill, an ornithologist with the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, had counted 325 birds and 31 species in about a three-hour period Dec. 15. He planned to continue his counting until it got dark.
“I call it the granddaddy of all citizen science projects,” Mulvihill said. There are similar projects such as counting fireflies, frog watches and bud bursts, but the Christmas bird count is the oldest.
The count was started by Frank Chapman in response to a “side hunt” at Christmas in which teams would try to see who could shoot the most birds. Alarmed that the bird population was dwindling, Chapman, an ornithologist, began the count, which quickly became popular. From the 25 counts held in 1900, the number today exceeds 2,100, with about 60,000 people participating.
This time of year was chosen because it doesn’t interfere with birds’ migration or mating cycles. Mulvihill said it is possible to see birds at all times of the day in winter, as opposed to other times of the year.
In Washington County, Tom Contreras, who compiles the bird count, said his counting circles extend from Washington to the Amity and Prosperity areas. He compiles the information and submits it to the Audubon Society.
Other local counts are held in Buffalo Township, and Clarksville and Ryerson in Greene County.
Mulvihill said participants look for good habitats. They can drive and pull off the road in certain areas or choose to walk on a trail. There are also enthusiastic birders who get up at first light and listen for owls, often playing tape-recorded versions of their call.
Marjorie Howard, who compiles the Ryerson count, said between 15 and 20 volunteers take part in their event.
Howard began participating in the Clarksville count in 1998 and finally started her own group in order to stay closer to home.
One year she counted 131 Eastern bluebirds and the following year only 29. In two years, 2001 and 2006, she noticed a golden eagle.
Is it difficult to identify the birds?
“There are times when all you say is ‘that was a little brown bird.’ Sometimes it’s impossible to identify some,” she said.
Of particular interest this year to the Audubon Society is an irruption of the redibreasted nutchatch, which has been moving south in great numbers from Canada and Alaska. The pattern, Mulvihill said, is believed due to the loss of food in northern spruce forests.
Although the annual bird count is a science project, it is designed to be a fun and social event for the entire family. Some bird counts begin with a breakfast, while others finish up with participants enjoying dinner together and relating their experiences.
But for those who don’t relish the idea of walking through the woods on a December day, they may choose to count birds at their feeders and send the numbers in to be compiled with the annual bird count. Information on feeder counts is available at the Aubudon’s Western Pennsylvania website at www.aswp.org.