The Christmas Count
Every December, the Audubon Society sponsors the Christmas bird count. It is the longest running volunteer science survey in the world. The count started in 1900 when ornithologist Frank Chapman proposed a new holiday tradition: a bird census that would count birds instead of hunting them.
The first bird count involved 27 volunteers. Since then, it has grown to tens of thousands, with volunteers in every state in the country.
The Audubon Society oversees the count, but members of many different organizations participate. The North Dakota Birding Society is an active supporter.
On this date in 1970, the Bismarck Tribune announced the results of the state’s 1969 Christmas bird count. Volunteers identified 37 different species of birds, with some surprises. Volunteers identified one lone merganser, a type of duck. They are rarely seen alone. The volunteers wondered if the duck had gotten lost and where his flock had gone. The species was not commonly found in North Dakota back then, though they are seen more often today. The number of pheasants in the 1970 count was a very pleasant surprise. The previous year, the Christmas count included only one pheasant. In 1970, that rose to 25.
The count has observed changes in the birds that call North Dakota home. The 1970 volunteers were surprised at the number of Canadian geese. Today, we are accustomed to seeing Canadian geese all winter long. In 1970, the geese migrated by early December. So, it was quite unusual when volunteers found a sizable flock of 23 geese.
The Audubon Society relies on donations to sponsor the count and manage the data. The information is available at no charge, and is of special interest to ornithologists and conservation biologists.
Another interesting observation is how birds respond to different conditions from year to year. Baird’s Sparrows may nest in a prairie pasture one year, only to find that the same pasture unsuitable the following year. The Christmas Bird Count helps scientists understand such changes as it provides data on trends and offers a picture of how birds fare over a long period of time.
Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher
Bismarck Tribune. “37 Species of Birds Counted by Society.” 2 January, 1970
North Dakota Birding Society. http://www.ndbirdingsociety.com/customContent.php?seq=28&title=North Dakota Christmas Bird Counts Accessed 8 December, 2014.