How Many Birds Have You Seen Today?

This post is written in honor of today’s National Bird Day, as well as the Audubon Naturalist Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which just occurred.

How many birds have you seen recently? For over one hundred years, birders around the world have paid special attention to more than just the two turtle doves, counting how many birds were near their homes in December. On Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed the first ever “Christmas Bird Count” or Census, as part of the Audubon Naturalist Society’s programs. An officer in the new Society, Chapman wanted to replace the common practice of the “Christmas Side Hunt” where hunters would shoot birds to see who could bring in the biggest pile of feathers that day. Alexander Wetmore Notebook with Christmas Bird Census, 1904-1907, page 1, Smithsonian Institution ArTwenty-five bird counts were held that first year, counting some ninety species. In December 2008, almost 60,000 bird watchers participated in 2,113 organized Bird Counts around the globe.

The Archives holds the official records of the Audubon Naturalist Society of the Central Atlantic States, and so it has good documentation of the growth of this program over time. Christmas Bird Count information can be found in many of our other collections. For example, the Smithsonian’s sixth Secretary, Alexander Wetmore (1886-1978), developed an interest in ornithology as a small boy growing up in North Freedom, Wisconsin. He wrote his first article, "My Experience with a Red-headed Woodpecker,” for the journal Bird Lore, Robin, watercolor on paper by Robert Ridgway, date unknown, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Robertwhen he was only fourteen and learned taxidermy through a correspondence course. By the time he entered the University of Kansas in 1904, he was participating in Christmas Bird Counts, establishing connections with the larger ornithological community. Junco, watercolor on paper by Robert Ridgway, date unknown, Smithsonian Institution Archives, RobertThat year he noted that he observed birds from 8:40 am to 12:30 pm, on a mild Christmas day when the temperature ranged from 48 to 60 degrees with light northeast winds. Among the many birds he recorded was the lapland longspur and brown creeper, as well as the more common junco (250 counted) and robin (60 counted). We have the records from his early counts in the Wetmore Papers in the Archives, as well as those of many other ornithologists.

The Christmas Bird Count has not just switched people from shooting to observing. The records were carefully compiled by the Audubon Society allowing many different types of studies. Changes in bird populations could be observed over the decades, in response to loss of habitat and pesticide use. More recently, Christmas Bird Counts have demonstrated changes in bird migration patterns in response to changes in the climate. This massive data compilation is part of what is known today as “Citizen Science,” the participation of ordinary people in collecting large sets of data of great use to scientists. Visit the Audubon Society website if you’d like to participate and maybe find your partridge in a pear tree.

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