Century-old Christmas tradition draws avian enthusiasts
Training her binoculars on the red-headed bird tapping steadily against the trunk of the nearby cedar, the young woman jotted down notes about the woodpecker. Along with dozens of other volunteers for the annual Christmas Bird Count, she was helping to canvass the Georgetown area, from the Blackland Prairie east of town to the limestone canyons running along the west, to count as many birds as possible during that day. In years past, Georgetown area participants have recorded more than 120 species within the fifteen-mile count area, with spotting highlights that include clay-colored sparrows, black-chinned hummingbirds, and mountain plovers.
“[The count] is the largest, longest running animal census in the world,” Ed Rozenberg says about the century-old tradition hosted by the National Audubon Society. The census occurs around the world between December 14 and January 5. Ed both organizes the Georgetown-area event and compiles the information collected by birders. Each participant during the day-long event, he says, collects “information about birds sighted, numbers, participants, miles covered, habitat conditions, and weather conditions” for the National Audubon Society.
“A good count is one in which counters see and count as many species and individuals as possible,” Ed notes with a laugh, “[and one where] there are no accidents or injuries and everyone has a good time. In 2012 there were 2,248 count circles with 63,200 participants who counted over 60 million birds. Species diversity is recorded with the numbers of each species seen. There’s good-natured competition between count circles,” he adds, “for total species, total numbers of birds, and most unusual birds seen.”
Begun in 1900 by ornithologist Frank Chapman as an alternative to hunting for animals and birds during the holiday, the Christmas Bird Count now plays a vital role in tracking bird species and populations. “Information gleaned . . . has been used in hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific articles and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services decisions,” explains Ed. “Birds are very sensitive to environmental changes. The [count] has helped monitor the effect of changes in land use, urbanization, and climate changes, and otherwise [has] helped identify birds in need of conservation action.”
In addition to contributing to science, Ed says that he enjoys participating every year “to see what birds are around and to participate with other birders, many of whom I see only this time each year. And I always learn more about birds, their habits, and their habitats.”