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109 years of Christmas Bird Count

With binoculars in hand, and a trusted bird book nearby, volunteers begin their count.

An interesting activity at this time of year is the annual Christmas Bird Count organized in various communities around the province. Usually about 20 Manitoba centres have a bird count during a three-week time slot over the Christmas/ New Year’s period. Each community chooses one day between December 14 and January 5 to hold its count.

The first Christmas Bird Count was held on Christmas Day, 1900, prompted by an American ornithologist, Frank Chapman. At that time there was an event where people formed teams and tried to shoot as many birds as possible. Chapman realized bird populations were declining and organized a instead of a hunt. The Christmas Bird Count, or CBC, became a program of the National Audubon Society and has evolved into a holiday tradition for many birders, with bird counts now being made in over 2,000 localities across North and South America. The data collected is studied to show the distribution of birds at this time of the year and to determine what birds are in decline.

Each count covers a 15-mile-diameter circle with the compiler organizing field groups to cover the area. Beginners are usually paired with more experienced observers. Because such a big area is included, individuals don’t do a count on their own. However, individuals count their own bird feeders and report the results to the compiler of each count.

Participants (except for those who watch feeders only) pay a $5 fee with the fees helping to cover costs, produce an annual summary and maintain the website.

With binoculars in hand, and a trusted bird book nearby, volunteers begin their count. If they’re lucky, the day chosen will be sunny and not too frosty; but even if it’s snowy or windy, or both, the count goes on. Most observers spend several hours walking or driving through their section of the circle. For some, it’s a friendly competition to see what region can come up with the greatest number of species and/or total birds. For others, it’s a family tradition or a chance to socialize with like-minded people; and for still others it’s the opportunity to hike in the outdoors while helping to obtain useful scientific information for bird conservation.

Sometimes the birders sight species that have normally migrated south, or species new to the province. Last year, for instance, red-bellied woodpeckers (not very common in our province) were seen in three places in Manitoba. Mourning doves (usually long gone south by that time) were counted at Dauphin and Morden. I also had a mourning dove at my feeder, but since my town didn’t have a count last year, it wasn’t included.

Information from each location can be studied on the Internet (under “Results: Current Year”). From there I learned that Minnedosa held its bird count last year on December 27 with nine participants. They reported 27 species, including seven mallards, one northern shrike and one American robin. Brandon held its on December 16 with 24 participants and 33 species, including three robins, three golden-crowned kinglets and a whopping 4,072 house sparrows!

If you’re interested in birds and like to get outside in winter, why not join a bird count this year? Check out the first web page below to learn if there’s a bird count near you, and contact the compiler listed there. (Or, if you don’t have access to the Internet, telephone the CBC co-ordinator, Dick Cannings at Port Rowen, Ontario: 888-448-2473.

Information is available at the following websites: www.bsceoc.org/volunteer/cbc/index. jsp?targetpg=index&lang=EN.

(look under “Find a Count Near You”) or www.audubon.org/bird/cbc/getinvolved. html.

– Donna Gamache writes from MacGregor, Manitoba

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