GRAND FORKS -- What started in 1900 as an alternative to a “whack ‘em and stack ‘em” holiday hunting event known as the Christmas “Side Hunt” today is the longest-running citizen science project in the world.
It’s the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, and from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5, birdwatching enthusiasts in communities across North America and beyond gather to count and identify as many bird species as they can find on a given day within a designated 15-mile radius known as a count circle.
This year marks the 121st anniversary of the Christmas Bird Count.
“It’s basically a midwinter snapshot of bird populations, mostly in North America, (but) Latin American circles are growing greatly now, too,” said Keith Corliss, a Fargo bird-watching enthusiast who for the past eight years has overseen the Fargo-Moorhead Christmas Bird Count in his role as “count compiler.”
According to the National Audubon Society’s website, an ornithologist by the name of Frank Chapman in 1900 proposed a “Christmas Bird Census” to replace the Christmas “Side Hunt.” Wildlife management was still in its infancy, but the Side Hunts were beginning to concern Chapman and others, Corliss said.
“The gentleman and boys of the families would get together and go out and basically fill the wagon with fur and feathers,” Corliss said. “They’d just shoot everything, and whoever got the biggest pile was the winner. There was no limit on deer, there was no limit on ducks.
“And so some people got together that year and decided, ‘Hey, instead of shooting these things, let’s count them.’”
Today, literally hundreds of communities across North American hold Christmas Bird Counts.
The Fargo-Moorhead CBC – as the event is known in birding circles – is always the first Saturday within the count period, Corliss said, but counts will continue through Jan. 5.
Compilers share their results with the National Audubon Society, which in turn compiles a long-term database. Because count circles are the same every year, the data provide a reliable way to track long-term trends, Corliss said.
"The gentleman and boys of the families would get together and go out and basically fill the wagon with fur and feathers. They’d just shoot everything, and whoever got the biggest pile was the winner. There was no limit on deer, there was no limit on ducks. And so some people got together that year and decided, ‘Hey, instead of shooting these things, let’s count them."
— Keith Corliss, on the early Christmas Bird Census events
All of the information is readily available on the Audubon website, he said.
“There have been over 300 peer-reviewed articles written using these data from the Christmas Bird Count, and all of these things are accessible to anybody who wants to look at them,” Corliss said. “You can look at trends, you can look at populations – it’s kind of a neat tool.”
Every year and every count is different, said Corliss, who assigns participants to designated routes within the count circle in his role as the Fargo-Moorhead compiler.
“Secretly or not secretly, you hope for the maximum number of species, and that’s the goal is to max that out or break your record, and it’s kind of a fun thing,” Corliss says.
It’s especially fun, he says, when a species that traditionally isn't common in a particular area shows up in numbers, a phenomenon known in the bird world as an “irruption.”
“Northern finches are irruptive so you get white-winged crossbills or this year, you get evening grosbeaks that we haven’t seen in years that are showing up in places,” Corliss said. “There is variability there, particularly with the wandering-type species – crossbills and northern finches and birds like that.”
Corliss said he’s participated in CBC events since moving back to Fargo in 1990. Besides organizing the Fargo-Moorhead count for the past eight years, Corliss says he’s participated in CBC events at Icelandic State Park near Cavalier, N.D.; Jamestown, N.D.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Pelican Rapids, Minn.; and even Carefree, Ariz.
“It’s a pretty fun deal,” he said. “In fact, one year in Fargo, a guy from Ohio joined us, and he said his intent was to do (a count) in all 50 states and then write a book. I don’t know where that stands, but people kind of treat this as a neat thing.”
In a typical year, Christmas Bird Counts are as much social occasions as they are citizen-science events. Each count has its own flavor and culture, Corliss says, and count days often include meeting for breakfast or gathering for “tally rallies” at day’s end to socialize and compare notes on sightings and highlights.
This year, because of the ongoing pandemic, Christmas Bird Counts in Fargo-Moorhead and elsewhere likely will be more hands-off events to conform with social-distancing guidelines and other recommendations aimed at minimizing the spread of COVID-19, Corliss said.
“We’ve had a couple that has been gracious enough to host the tally rally at the end of the day, and we kind of both agree that is not going to happen this year,” Corliss said. “It’s had an impact for sure.”
At the same time, interest in being outdoors has been near record levels since the pandemic began, a trend apparent in both state park attendance and fishing license sales. That same appetite for being outdoors could drive participation in CBC events, too, Corliss said.
“I would expect that to be the case,” he said. “We might find we’re going to have a really good year just because of all the eyes out there looking.”
People who can’t or don’t want to go afield on count day also can contribute if they have backyard bird feeders, Corliss said.
“I've got 14 feeder watchers, so they’ll just sit in their house and count birds, so that’s an available thing for people that want to take part, too,” he said.
Being an expert isn’t a requirement.
“We had a Zoom meeting the other night to talk about the CBC and there was a woman who said, ‘Well, I'm not a very good birder but I like to look at birds,’ ” Corliss said. “I said, ‘That’s great. All you need to do is say, ‘What’s that?’ Because there’ll be somebody there who knows what it is.
“All we’re looking for are more eyes. The more eyes there are, the more birds we’re going to see and the more birds we’re going to count.”
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