Christmas Bird Count

WILLIAM AMELIA

December 24, 1992|By WILLIAM AMELIA

Nearly 100 years ago, an editorial in a minor Audubon Societ journal called for people to count birds, not shoot them. The editorial's plea was made as a protest to the ''side hunt,'' a thoughtless competition for hunters to see who could kill the most birds and mammals in an afternoon.

Twenty-five people responded and tabulated 5,000 birds in 27 counts. Frank Chapman, who wrote the editorial, was among the original group, as was Wilmer Stone, the eminent ornithologist who would later write the classic, ''Bird Studies at Old Cape May.''

Every year since then, people -- like birds -- have been banding together in groups across the nation to count our birds. It is called the Christmas Bird Count.

This year more than 40,000 people in more than 1,600 groups are counting the nation's birds during the period December 17 through January 3. Their objective is to find and count as many birds and species as possible in specific areas over a 24-hour period. Over 18 days last year counters tallied 55 million birds in ,, North, South and central America, the Caribbean, Hawaii and Guam.

Whenever bird watchers gather, the competing list, for better or worse, is a topic of discussion. This competitive spirit is also part of the Christmas Count. Usually a hamlet in Southeastern Texas will produce the top list of most species sighted.

The counters' findings, which are later published in Audubon journals, are invaluable. The information helps scientists develop the atlases which track bird populations, showing the declines and increases in areas across the country.

Several years ago I took part in the Christmas Count. The weather was splendid and I had a birding expert for my partner. We identified and counted many species. Memorable were the 400 canvasback ducks feeding on corn spillage at the grain elevators in the inner harbor, the 50 brown-headed cowbirds roosting in an elm on Fort Avenue and the bald eagle seen from Fort McHenry.

Joseph Kastner, in his book ''A World of Watchers,'' quotes an ornithologist's definition of bird watching as ''a mild paralysis of the central nervous system which can be cured only by rising at dawn and sitting in a bog.''

Over these two weeks, that particular affliction and its cure are being repeated many times as Christmas Counters set off to take the 93rd bird census. Here's to all of them.

William Amelia writes from Baltimore.

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