Annual Christmas Bird Count a more peaceable custom than its predecessors


Photo by Bryan Stevens • This adult Cooper’s Hawk was found on the 2016 Elizabethton CBC.

I participated in the annual Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count and Roan Mountain Christmas Bird Count conducted by the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society on Saturday, Dec. 17, and Wednesday, Dec. 21.

During the Elizabethton Count with my fellow counters — Charles Moore, Chris Soto and Michelle Sparks — we found some good winter birds, including gadwalls and buffleheads on the Watauga River, white-throated sparrows and yellow-bellied sapsuckers at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park and a Cooper’s hawk near the American Legion headquarters near downtown Elizabethton. I helped Brookie and Jean Potter with the Roan Mountain CBC. Some of our good birds included Ruby-crowned Kinglet, American Black Duck and Purple Finch. I will provide the results of both these CBCs in upcoming blog posts.

Despite a sore toe that hampered my walking this year, I was determined to take part. I’ve participated in Christmas Bird Counts, often shortened by birders to CBCs, since the late 1990s. Other long-running CBCs in the region include the Bristol CBC, the Shady Valley CBC and the Roan Mountain CBC. I have always tried to take part in this annual tradition which has become part of my own holiday celebration.


Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The Winter Wren is a small but noisy bird.

According to the National Audubon Society’s website, the tradition of the Christmas Bird Count arose from a less than bird-friendly custom. By the turn of the 20th century, so-called sportsmen would conduct a “Side Hunt,” a rather blood-thirsty Christmas custom that saw hunters competing to see who could score the largest amount of feathered and furred corpses.

The annual holiday bird survey may even have arisen from an earlier custom with roots in Europe that came to the United States of America with early colonists. The “Side Hunt” has some similarity to a peculiar celebration in Ireland and other European countries known as “Wren Day” or “Hunt the Wren Day.” The event was conducted the day after Christmas, the date of Dec. 26 being consigned as Saint Stephen’s Day. By the 20th century, the hunt consisted of tracking down a fake wren carried atop a decorated pole. Crowds would parade through towns in masks and colorful attire. These groups were referred to as “wren boys.”


Frank Chapman

Whether or not the “Side Hunt and “Wren Hunt” shared any connections, it was a huge step forward for conservation when preeminent ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed a new holiday tradition. His radical idea was to count birds during the Christmas season rather than hunting and killing them.

The Christmas Bird Count is now conducted each year on dates between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. The first CBC took place in December of 1900 with 27 observers participating at 25 locations in the United States and Canada. Fifteen of the counts were conducted in the northeastern United States from Massachusetts to Philadelphia. Results from that first count in 1900 didn’t truly reflect the diversity of North America’s birds, but there were nonetheless interesting. The Greater Boston CBC boasted only one participant and only found 17 species. However, some of those species included such good birds as American tree sparrow, brown creeper, Northern shrike and Northern bobwhite.

Northern shrike perched on bare branch

Photo by Dave Menke/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The Northern shrike, pictured, was one of the birds represented on one of the very first Christmas Bird Counts conducted in the United States.


These days the Christmas Bird Count is also conducted in almost 20 other nations around the world, although participants still largely hail from the United States and Canada. CBCs are still conducted under the auspices of the National Audubon Society. The CBC is one of the earliest examples of citizen science in action. People of different levels of experience can easily participate in a CBC and in so doing contribute to the scientific data available about bird populations in winter in the United States. Trends can be deduced from some of the fluctuations in populations of various bird species in different regions of the nation.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • Other wildlife, such as white-tailed deer, is often spotted while counting birds for the CBC.

We’ve come a long way since the days when birders used a gun to bring a bird up close and personal for inspection. There’s still competition, but these days birders are trying to see which count party can observe and identity the most species of birds. The only evidence we bring back from the field is an occasional photograph.


I had a mistake in a recent post on the history of feeding birds. Americans spend about $3 billion a year on bird feed. In my recent post, I erred in stating that the figure spent on bird seed was $3 million. When you think about it, Americans really do love their birds. The evidence is right there in how much money we spend to feed them. I hope readers of my weekly blog posts enjoyed a wonderful Christmas. My wish for 2017 is that everyone gets to see plenty of fun birds.


To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more.

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