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Christmas Bird Count Transformed Holiday Side Hunts

Christmas Season “side hunts” were the rage through the late 1800s when most people still considered birds a limitless resource. The idea was to form two groups. The side with the most “kills” won. The holiday game changed in 1900 when ornithologist Frank Chapman proposed a new idea. Instead of killing birds, people were encouraged to count them.  They could submit their data to Bird-Lore magazine, which later became Audubon magazine. The first Victorian Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was a huge success with 27 volunteers counting birds in the United States and Canada. To this day, volunteer birdwatchers hold Christmas Bird Counts from December 14 to January 5 under the direction of the National Audubon Society.

Frank Chapman Launched The Christmas Bird Count

Born in New Jersey in 1864, Frank Chapman was an ornithologist and pioneer writer of field guides. He designed his books as a resource people could take into the world to identify wildlife. Chapman joined the staff of the American Museum of Natural History of New York in 1888. Among his many titles was Bird Studies With A Camera. He encouraged people to document birds with new cameras like the easy Kodaks.

Chapman’s Bird-Lore magazine published in 1899 was the forerunner of Audubon magazine. It was an illustrated bi-monthly magazine devoted to the study and protection of birds. He described it as “the official organ of the Audubon Societies.” The National Association of Audubon Societies purchased Bird-Lore from him in 1935. They magazine was officially renamed to Audubon in 1966.

Victorian Christmas Bird Count Transformed Millinery Fashion

Through the first half of the 1800s, most people considered birds a limitless natural resource. Revered painter of birds, John James Audubon (1785-1851), related his first-hand experiences regarding the abundance of egrets. He fueled popular opinion that birds would never be endangered. But that changed as the taste for feathered Victorian Hats escalated in the latter half of the century.

Victorian era hat fashion had an endless appetite for plumes. As it turned out, Audubon was wrong. Hunters supplying the fashion industry had nearly wiped out snowy egret populations in America. Peafowl, flamingoes and roseate spoonbills were also endangered. An estimated five million birds from 50 species were killed each year in the name of fashion.

Ideas of formal conservation were just forming. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act would not be passed until 1918. Chapman’s first Christmas Bird Count was an extraordinary event that exposed the plight of birds to the public.

Frank Chapman Writes About First Christmas Bird Count

The following account on Audubon.org summarizes Chapman’s Christmas Bird Count.

It is not many years ago that sportsmen were accustomed to meet on Christmas Day. They would “choose sides,” and then, as representative of the two bands resulting, hie them to the fields and woods on the cheerful mission of killing practically everything in fur or feathers that crossed their path…

These exceptional opportunities for winning the laurels of the chase were termed “side hunts.” The report of the hundreds of non-game birds which wee sometimes slaughtered during a single hunt were often published in our leading sportsmen’s journals, with perhaps a word of editorial commendation for the winning side. We are not certain that the side hunt is wholly a thing of the past, but we feel assured that no reputable sportsman’s journal of today would venture to publish an account of one, unless it were to condemn it. This very radical change of tone is one of the significant signs of the time.

Now Bird-Lore proposes a new kind of Christmas side hunt, in the form of a Christmas bird-census. We hope that all our readers who have the opportunity will aid us in making it a success by spending a portion of Christmas Day with the birds and sending a report of their ‘hunt’ to Bird-Lore before they retire that night. Such reports should be headed by the locality, hour of staring and of returning, character of the weather, direction and force of the wind and the temperature. The birds observed should then be added following the order in which they are given in the AOU check list…

Promptness in sending these lists to Bird Lore is urged in order that the best of them may be published in our February number. They will be not only of interest to other participants in the hunt but will also constitute in a measure a census of Christmas bird life.

Christmas Bird Count Today

Each year from December 14 through January 5 tens of thousands of volunteers throughout North America count birds. Each is assigned to a single 15-mile diameter circle. Organizers compile the data from multiple groups in different parts of each circle and assemble a final total. Audubon and other organizations use data they collect to improve the health of bird populations. Their valuable input helps guide conservation practices.

For those who can’t go the extra miles, Audubon in association with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, oversees the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). That event takes place on President’s Day weekend in February. Participants count birds in their backyard each day. They can enter results online.

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2 Responses

  1. I am writing a short article about the Christmas Bird count for the Juneau Audubon Society for our bi-monthly newsletter-The Raven. I had no idea of the origins of the Christmas Bird Count. Now I shall share the story of Frank Chapman and his role initiating this tradition (as an alternative to the Side Hunt) with my fellow birders up here in Southeast Alaska. So happy to have found this great article,. Thank you.

    1. I would love to read your article. Perhaps we can add a link to yours?
      Thanks so much for commenting on this very important topic! Please circle back in case we can’t find your piece.

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