At the turn of the century, Christmas Day activities often included a hunt where teams competed to see how many birds and beasts they could kill. In 1900, the Audubon Society began a peaceful -- and useful -- counter-tradition, one that has endured much longer than the "side hunt." The Christmas Bird Count now extends throughout the holiday season. In Maryland alone, there are 22 separate day-long counts, the last of which took place in Annapolis on New Year's Day.
For hundreds of Marylanders, holiday bird counts are a staple of the season, a way of savoring winter landscapes and bumping binoculars with fellow birders as parties of participants follow pre-set routes, keeping a tally of species they spot and the numbers of individual birds. This year Marylanders counted over 43,000 birds, representing 103 different species. The counts are useful tools for researchers, who use the data to help determine trends in migration patterns or to trace the decline of a species. Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is computerizing 30 years of data.
No one pretends the tallies are precise -- after all, the Census Bureau has enough trouble counting people. But the tradition of setting aside time during the holiday season for a gentle checkup on our feathered friends seems an appropriate way to see out an old, tattered year and usher in the new.