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Counting at Christmas

The Retired

Time was, when birds were free to tweet,
And from the trees came twitters sweet.
Alas, no more; birds just make chirps…
Tweets and twitters come from twerps.

(12/09) December is here. My wife welcomes it; to her, it provides another reason to go shopping. I despair of it; to me, it means another year has slipped away, leaving another list of things undone and intentions unrealized. There will be Christmas… buried almost to obscurity by commercialism, but still meaningful to some of us. Ecologically, there is the Winter Solstice, bringing the expectation of real winter weather, and the annual Audubon Bird Count. And embedded in our cultural mindset is the feeling of resignation that a segment of time has ended and the rise of hope that the next segment may be better.

The end of December will mark a minor anniversary of sorts. In January, 1979, I started listing the birds I saw each day on monthly charts. The tangible product of this is a file folder in my desk which holds 360 pages of records, one for each month of the past 30 years. It was an educational exercise rather than a scientific one. There were days when I forgot to record observations, or was preempted by family activities or work, so the lists are more of a personal diary or journal than a scientific compilation. But they did improve my skill as a naturalist, and they provided a variety of examples for my biology classes. The lists include 271 species of birds… impressive if you don't know about birding, but rather paltry when you consider that good birders who are serious about their craft frequently see over 100 species in a single day.

Included in the records are the birds seen on the annual Christmas counts. The National Audubon Society started having Christmas counts in 1900, so this year will be the 110th time it has been done. Thinking about it the other day I was surprised to realize that I have participated in nearly half of them; I have missed only a few since my first in 1957. The idea is simple: a group of birders, mostly Audubon members, select a day within two weeks before or after Christmas, and go out and count all of the birds they can find within a 15-mile circle. Each person, or small teams in some of the larger chapters, is responsible for a certain section of the circle; for example, my area is the Gettysburg battlefield. I will arrive near Big Round Top before sunrise to listen for owls, walk and drive around the battlefield all day, and then go to the leader's home to turn in my list, compare notes and have a potluck supper. This basic routine is repeated by Audubon groups all over the world. From its simple beginning of 25 groups in 1900, last year there were 2,124 groups, including over 60,000 participants, in the U. S. alone.

The records accumulated over these 110 years provide valuable information about changes in bird populations. They were among the first warnings of the decline of eagles, ospreys and peregrine falcons from DDT in the food chain in the 1960s and '70s, and they recorded the recovery of these species after DDT was banned. Most of the people involved it the counts are amateurs, but many of them are as good as professional ornithologists at identifying birds in the field. The counting is done on the honor system, but it is expected that photographs will be taken to authenticate any really unusual sightings, like the hummingbird that turned up in New Jersey a few years ago.

In many cases, you don't actually have to see a bird to count it; an experienced birder can identify most common species by their songs. The best examples of this are the various kinds of owls we have around here. Their voices may carry half a mile or more, they don't travel in flocks, and they are strongly territorial, so you usually only hear one at a time, or at most a mated pair. Great horned owls, barred owls and screech owls are easily distinguished by sound. As every child knows, chickadees pronounce their own name (interestingly, it sounds the same in English, Spanish, French and several Native American languages). Crows say "caw," which also sounds the same in any language. The bluebird call is a soft, plaintive whistle; the kingfisher sounds like shaking peas in a gourd. Chimney swifts actually make a twittering sound, and several species of small birds mutter among themselves when they are feeding by means of soft notes that are best translated as "tweet." Unfortunately, in what surely must rank as the most heinous linguistic barbarism yet to occur in this century, the two latter terms have been usurped by the world of cybernetics in order to further the dumbing-down process among adolescent minds of all ages… but, I digress.

In addition to monitoring populations, the Christmas counts inform us of environmental degradation. I have canvassed the Battlefield for the past 15 years, following essentially the same routes each year; and over the past 3 years the numbers of birds I have seen declined. During this period the Park Service has instituted a program to clear forested areas and return the Park to the way it looked at the time of the battle. I don't know what fraction of the people who visit the battlefield actually are aware of the original layout, but it is a safe bet that they are a small minority. To be sure, some are serious students of Civil War history, but the vast majority I have observed are just there for a day of vacation, and are more interested in making sure their motels have pools and video games than in seeing the area as it was at the time of the 1863 carnage. So in my judgment it is a misguided and insensitive policy. Many of the areas that have been cleared were not near roads or trails where visitors go, and the loss of those forests is a senseless loss of natural habitat. For species like the red-headed woodpecker, whose numbers are already declining, this is disastrous; they require mature forests to survive, and there is nowhere else to go.

Counting day will pass, and Christmas will come. We will decorate a tree and have a family meal and exchange presents, and take a bit of time to reflect on why we are doing these things. I will remember Walt Kelly, who considered life to be a journey and gave these words to his friend, Pogo:

…For Christmas is a lifelong dream,
and dreams the stuff of years.
The gentle journey wanders on,
through laughter, love and tears.

May it be so for all of us. Merry Christmas.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith