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In October 1900, Frank Chapman, a respected ornithologist at the New York Museum of Natural History, had an idea. Christmas season “side hunts” were all the rage in the 1800s, with teams competing to kill what they assumed was an inexhaustible supply of birds (and furry animals); their tallies were proudly reported in popular sports magazines.
Writing in “Bird-Lore, an Illustrated Bimonthly Magazine Dedicated to the Study and Protection of Birds, Official Organ of the Audubon Societies,” Chapman proposed that instead of celebrating Christmas season by hunting to kill, hunters should instead conduct a “bird census” of live birds. Chapman’s bird-census started off in 1900 with 27 birders in 25 counts. In Glen Ellyn, our closest count, participants reported seven species, including eight prairie chickens. The event turned into the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC); this coming season marks its 120th consecutive year.
We have all read about the three billion song birds that have gone missing from North America since 1970. Two top sources for the report were the Breeding Bird Surveys and radar screens indicating masses of birds migrating at night. Signifying the importance of the Christmas Bird Count, data for 58 species that spend their non-breeding seasons in parts of the U.S. and southern Canada not covered by the Breeding Bird Surveys came from Christmas Bird Counts. With the current climate-change reports from northern regions, one can expect future Christmas Count data from Canada to be all the more crucial.
Christmas Bird Counts are densely located in the eastern half of the U.S., along the West Coast, and in southern Canada, but you can find them in Mexico and Central America, as well as some in the high Arctic and one in Drake Passage at the tip of South America. For the latter you have to sign up well ahead of time, since it takes place from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) vessel. On Dec. 23, 1991, with the low temperature at -42 Fahrenheit and a high of -39, two intrepid souls in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska counted 38 Common Ravens. Over their 12-year period, they never encountered anything but a raven, although with warmer temperatures the number was usually much higher.
Counts take place in specifically designated “count circles.” Count circles have a diameter of 15 miles around a set point of latitude and longitude. The North Shore Count, sponsored by the Evanston North Shore Bird club, has taken place since 1962 and is centered on the intersection of Dundee Road and Route 41. That takes participants north to Fort Sheridan and west to the Des Plaines River. It includes all of Wilmette, parts of Skokie, Glenview and Morton Grove, and only parts of Evanston, mainly north of Golf Road. Northwestern University falls officially outside the circle but is included, making up for the location of part of the count circle being in the lake.
Our count circle has documented trends since 1962. Altered habitat has been positive for some species and negative for others. Developments have replaced open fields where we used to count, and detention ponds stay open all year, providing winter habitat for waterfowl: Great Blue Herons and some ducks appear more frequently. Our first record of the eastern House Finch moving west was in 1974. Coopers Hawks, once rare, increased from one in 1963 to a high of 26 in 2007; 15 were counted in 2018. The Canada Goose, once ubiquitous but overhunted and affected by habitat loss, was considered eliminated as a breeding species in Illinois by the 1920s. Starting in the 1930s, it was reintroduced multiple times. One showed up on Evanston’s CBC in 1962, but people were skeptical. The numbers grew, until the high count of 13,149 was reported in 1997! Last year, the number was 2,511. And the effects of West Nile Virus on Blue Jays, Chickadees and Crows can be seen by comparing various count circles – not all areas were affected evenly.
CBCs can be held any time between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. Other counts in the area are on December 16, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Counts are organized by “compilers,” who are in charge of recruitment and reporting the results to the National Audubon Society.
The Evanston North Shore Bird Club’s North Shore Count takes place annually on the first Saturday after Christmas, this year on December 28. You can sign up to count in the field or you can count from the comfort of your home. If you count birds in your back yard, you must live within the count circle. You count the highest number of birds of a species that you see at one time, list the species you see, and provide the results to the compiler. Some typical back yard winter birds I am hoping to count at my bird bath include Dark-eyed Junco, American Goldfinch, House Finch, Black-capped Chickadee, Northern Cardinal, Mourning Dove, White-breasted Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker and Blue Jay. All counters are invited to participate in the after-count potluck dinner, where totals for each team are recorded.
To participate in this year’s count and to find out if your feeders are in the count circle, email firstname.lastname@example.org. As the saying goes, “Good Birding!”