The Christmas hunt was long a holiday tradition. Armed with rifles and shotguns, Christmas guests would choose teams for a “side hunt” and fan out over field, woodland and riverbank. Winners bagged the largest number of birds.
In 1900, a new tradition began in response to America’s nascent conservation movement. Birds would remain the quarry, and the tally would still matter, but no slugs, buckshot, bullets or shells. The rules demanded a simple count of birds seen and identified, and an honor system, gentlemanly yet progressive, defined play. The annual Christmas Bird Count was established.
The holiday bird counting custom caught on in Pittsburgh in 1959 under the auspices of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, which remains the sponsor. In late December, birdwatchers scatter to visit places such as Duck Hollow and Allegheny Cemetery, Beechwood Farms and Pine Creek. The most dedicated counters start at midnight, listening for great horned owls who begin their territorial hoots this time of year. Others go afield in the morning and remain out as long as winter weather and access to hot coffee permits. They take a census whose top five residents include American crows, European starlings, rock pigeons, mallards and house sparrows. Because these are birds most everyone knows, beginners can participate. In a good year, local bird lovers will count as many as 20,000 or 30,000 individual birds of 70 or more species.
The rarities garner the most attention, birds whose numbers have remained low or declined over the years or whose internal compasses have sent them widely off course to our skies. A little brown swamp sparrow or a merlin, a fast-flying raptor, are considered great finds and usually make the count every year. How about Wilson’s snipe, red-headed woodpecker or ring-necked duck? To see just one of these birds in 10 years highlights a Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count and keeps local birders on watch, binoculars at the ready.
Efforts by Pittsburgh birdwatchers are part of a larger national project. Last year 43,516 Christmas Bird Count volunteers fanned out across the U.S. and counted an astonishing 66,219,394 birds. The data collected are used by ornithologists to track population trends and the distribution of species across the country. Conservation efforts are managed, in part, by what this annual tradition of citizen science reveals.
To get started watching birds or to volunteer for the 107th Christmas Bird Count, visit the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania at www.aswp.org or call (412)963-6100. Three Rivers Birding Club hosts regular meetings and free local field trips, www.3rbc.org.