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Fascinating story behind CBC

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  • katemarianchild
    THE STORY BEHIND THE CHRISTMAS BIRD COUNT © 2008 by Kate Marianchild (Chapters that wish to use this article should contact me first: 707-463-0839) The
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 7, 2008
      © 2008 by Kate Marianchild

      (Chapters that wish to use this article should contact me first:

      The Christmas Bird Count of today would astonish people who lived
      around the turn of the last century when wholesale massacres of birds
      and other wildlife occurred with regularity. In those days
      bird-watching, now possibly the most widespread recreational activity
      in North America, was virtually unknown. The killing of birds – both
      for fun and for profit – was the game of the day. The Christmas Bird
      Count, in fact, is one of history's most inspiring examples of the
      ability of humans to transform behavior – to take an ugly, destructive
      tradition and successfully re-launch it in a thoroughly happy and
      productive direction.

      When Europeans first came to North America they encountered new
      species of birds in what seemed like limitless numbers. Eager to learn
      about these novelties, naturalists, including now-iconic figures such
      as John James Audubon, shot them. Some ornithologists thought it
      necessary to kill and preserve the skins of at least 100 birds of a
      single species in order to thoroughly study and catalog all the
      variations of size and plumage.

      While collecting dead birds for science had its rationale (and is in
      fact a practice that laid the groundwork for most of the field guides
      we use today), many of the other practices of a century ago were less

      In the half-century after the Civil War, 200 million birds, many of
      them breeding egrets with elegant plumes, were killed each year for
      feathers to adorn ladies' hats – birds whose eggs and chicks were then
      abandoned to die. (Women were often deluded into thinking the birds
      were only plucked, not killed). During the same decades it was also
      the craze to decorate hats with whole dead birds, or sometimes just
      the heads and wings. Songbirds, bobwhites, flickers, or owls might be
      artistically arranged around fanciful nests on these dubious fashion
      statements. In 1886, Frank Chapman, a hunter, conservationist, and the
      founder of the Christmas Bird Count, took two strolls on 14th Street
      in Manhattan for the purpose of observing ladies' hats: of the 700
      hats he counted, 546 were decorated with dead birds or feathers.

      Raptors were also at risk. Each fall sport hunters would climb to the
      top of a particular mountain in Pennsylvania to shoot birds of prey as
      they soared in spirals on their migration route. Myriad carcasses of
      eagles, hawks, falcons, kites, harriers, and osprey would be left on
      the ground to rot. (Thanks to conservationist Rosalie Edge, who
      purchased the mountain in 1936, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is now one of
      the leading raptor research institutes in the world).

      The widespread ritual that led to the establishment of the Christmas
      Bird Count was the "side hunt," a bloody Christmas Day event during
      which hunters would comb the countryside with the express purpose of
      shooting anything that moved. All wildlife was fair game, but birds
      got the worst of it. Horrified by the multiple Christmas Day
      massacres, Frank Chapman proposed a friendly competition to see who
      could identify, rather than kill, the most species in one day. Bird
      lovers responded with enthusiasm. In the year 1900, twenty-seven
      birders in as many regions – from eastern Canada to Louisiana to
      California – set out on Christmas Day to look for birds – and the
      Christmas Bird Count was born.

      How proud Frank Chapman would be if he were alive today! His
      twenty-seven counters have become almost sixty thousand, and his
      friendly little competition has grown into the largest and most
      effective wildlife monitoring program in the world. Chapman would also
      be gratified to know that, thanks to him and other concerned
      conservationists (including many women in the powerful women's
      movement of the time) it is now illegal to kill raptors and migratory
      birds...and bird-watching has become a wildly popular national pastime.

      * Much of the information in this article was culled from "Of a
      Feather," A Brief History of American Birding, a fascinating new book
      by Scott Weidensaul (author of "Living on the Wind" and two dozen
      other books on natural history).
      ** The Christmas Bird Count is now a program of the National Audubon
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