Birds of a Feather


The year is 1900.

With the holidays approaching, ornithologist Frank Chapman, editor of Bird- Lore magazine, contemplates the tradition of the “side hunt.” Sportsmen will be gathering on Christmas Day, choosing sides and taking to the field to shoot both bird and beast. In keeping with Bird-Lore’s motto, “A Bird in the Bush is Worth Two in the Hand,” Mr. Chapman proposes an alternative: Bird enthusiasts should go out on Christmas Day to count, rather than hunt, the birds in their area, submitting their reports to his magazine.

Little did those first 27 people counting in 25 locations (recording 18,500 birds of 90 different species) realize that their efforts would initiate a long-lived exercise in citizen science—the Christmas Bird Count. During last year’s count, the 107th, more than 57,000 people participated in over 2,000 different counts held in all 50 states, every Canadian province, parts of Central and South America, Bermuda, the West Indies and several Pacific Islands. They tallied more than 69 million birds. The primary objective of this monumental effort is to monitor the status and distribution of early winter bird populations across the Western Hemisphere. Official Audubon counts must be held between December 14 and January 5, and conducted within an established circle, 15 miles in diameter.

Patricia Metz, Refuge Ranger with the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service, helped organize the first Harris Neck Christmas Bird Count, which was held on December 25, 1970. Eight people counted every bird they could find within the 177 square mile circle, which includes Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, Sunbury, Ft. Morris, Colonel’s Island and parts of Midway. “I’m just astounded by the growth in the number of people who are interested in birds and birding,” gushes Metz. “Back then, we had to struggle to find 3 or 4 good birders to help with the count. Now, more and more people are showing up eager to participate.”

In December 2000, Corps of Engineers biologist Steve Calver initiated a Savannah area Christmas Bird Count. The circle includes most of greater Savannah, as well as the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, the Dredge Disposal Area and a number of private tracts of land in South Carolina. On December 30, 2006, 57 people tallied 160 species, either by joining a team in the field, or by counting the birds at their feeders.

Anyone with an interest in his or her local bird populations can organize a bird survey. Residents of The Landings on Skidaway Island started their own winter bird count in 1999. Some 20 to 25 bird enthusiasts now comb the approximately 12 square mile community in cars, golf carts and by foot, recording every bird they see.

In addition to backyard birds such as cardinals, woodpeckers, bluebirds and brown thrashers, The Landings hosts a large wintering population of hooded mergansers, as well as an assortment of herons, egrets, cormorants and anhingas. Count participants scan the mud flats at low tide for willets, oyster- catchers and other shorebirds. They check the river for loons, grebes and northern gannets, the salt marsh for clapper rails, the live oaks for tiny flitting warblers and the weedy fields for sparrows. Count organizer Dot Bambach points with pride to the 2006 count total of 120 species. “That we can find so many species in such a small area,” says Bambach, “encourages us to perse- vere in the effort to preserve and enhance the wonderful diversity of natural habitats we have here.”