Although peregrine falcons have been in Evanston for several years, nesting, for example, on the ledge of the Main Library, no peregrines were recorded in the Christmas Bird Count.Photo By Emily Portugal

The 111th annual Christmas Bird Counts sponsored by the National Audubon Society took place between Tuesday, December 14, 2010 and Wednesday, January 5.  Given the moniker “citizen scientists,” participants ranging from novice to experienced birders brave wind, snow, rain and occasional sun to tally the bird species seen on their particular count day in their particular count circle.  Participants can also stay cozy inside and count the birds that visit their feeders. 
In 2008, 2113 count circles spanned the United States, Canada, Hawaii, the Pacific Islands, the Caribbean, Central and South America. 

Count circles have a diameter of 15 miles around a set point of latitude and longitude. Since 1962, the Evanston North Shore Count, sponsored by the Evanston North Shore Bird Club, has centered on the intersection of Dundee Road and Route 41. That takes participants up to Lake Forest and west to the Des Plaines River. It includes the suburbs in between, all of Wilmette, and the section of Evanston north of Golf Road, where target locations include Northwestern, Perkins Woods, the North Shore Channel and the Lake.

The 2010 Evanston-North Shore Count took place on Dec. 26.  Thirty hardy counters in 16 small groups spotted a total of 11,523 birds of 70 species. Among them were the usual suspects: Coopers and Red-tailed hawks, owls, ducks, gulls. grackles, chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches. Canada Geese, mourning doves, kingfishers, woodpeckers, great blue herons, flickers, blue jays, crows, eastern bluebirds, cardinals, house finches, brown creepers and cedar waxwings, plus those migrating birds that consider our climate “south,” such as robins, juncos, tree sparrows and even the pine siskin and the uncommon Common Redpoll.

Humans and birds have been interconnected throughout history, although counting them is a 20th-century invention. People have long displayed feathers to show hunting prowess or to celebrate victory over an enemy, but not until the waning years of the 19th century was there concern that the intensity of hunting for sport and profit could wipe out entire species. Although the first Christmas count in 1900 was a refutation of the “sport” of hunting, the hot issue of feathers adorning women’s hats was indicative of the conservation milieu that was reaching maturity around the turn of the century.

In the 1770s, during the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, hats decorated with ostrich plumes were the fashion for French female aristocrats. By the 1880s, bird-plumed hats were all the rage for American women, encouraged by mass-circulation fashion magazines. Godey’s Lady’s Book included a “Velvet bonnet, trimmed with [whole] bird and feathers.” Water birds were especially highly valued for their long, graceful plumage.  Estimates run as high as fifteen million American songbirds and waterfowl killed annually for the sole purpose of garnishing ladies’ hats. 

In 1896, Boston Brahmin Harriet Hemenway read an article about the destruction of a heron rookery for the bounty of feathers.  Irate, she swore off feathers on her own hats and persuaded other wealthy,  prestigious women to do the same.  She organized prominent citizens, writers, ornithologists and others to spread the word and to lobby state and federal governments to enact protective legislation. Their strategy was to persuade the consumer rather than the milliner or the hunter. They formed the Massachusetts Audubon Society, whose mission was “to work to discourage the buying or wearing of feathers and to otherwise further the protection of native birds.”

In October, 1900, Frank Chapman, a respected ornithologist and editor of “Bird Lore,” the predecessor of Audubon Magazine, wrote an article titled “A Christmas Bird-Census.” Chapman was avidly opposed to the slaughter of birds; articles in Bird Lore condemned the millinery feather trade. But Chapman aimed at a different target: wanton hunting.  In his own words: 

“It is not many years ago that sportsmen were accustomed to meet on Christmas Day, choosing sides and then as representatives and of the two bands resulting, hie them to the fields and woods on the cheerful mission of killing practically everything in fur or feathers that crossed their path if they could.” 

These exceptional opportunities for winning the laurels of the chase were termed “side hunts,” and reports of the hundreds of non-game birds which were sometimes slaughtered during a single hunt were often published in our leading sportsmen’s journals, with perhaps a word of editorial commendation for the winning side.  We are not certain that the side hunt is wholly a thing of the past, but we feel assured that no reputable sportsmen’s journal of today would venture to publish an account of one, unless it were to condemn it, and this very radical change of tone is one of the significant signs of the times.”

Chapman invited sportsmen to spend a portion of Christmas Day counting instead of killing birds. He proposed rules and promised that the results he received would be published in “Bird Lore” the following February.  Reports from 27 counters from across the country totaled 89 species.  (The closest count to Evanston was Glen Ellyn, where seven species, including eight prairie chickens, were seen.) 

Chapman’s inspired innovation has led to 100-plus years of data that allow scientists to detect trends or discover immediate threats.  Clues to hotspot disease outbreaks such as West Nile Virus were documented on the Christmas count. A gradual decline in species provided an alert for the effects of DDT. Long-term data has demonstrated the expansions of species’ territory, probably due to global warming. 

Put a virtual feather in your cap.  Participate in the next local Christmas Count scheduled for Dec. 27, 2011.

Libby Hill

Libby Hill is the author of "The Chicago River: a Natural and Unnatural History. She has been writing about birds and trees and Evanston's natural history for the Roundtable since 2004.