Vail Daily column: A bird-counting Christmas tradition |

Vail Daily column: A bird-counting Christmas tradition

Ben WatkinsCurious NatureVail, CO Colorado

Christmas time in the air again.Grab the family and all of the kin.Let’s tromp through the woods with our guns turned outAnd shoot anything that scurries about.Varmint, rodent, birdie or shrew,The same to me is the same to you.Bag them and tag them and collect them by score.Mount them o’er the fireplace door.Christmas time in the air again.Let the Christmas Side Hunt ere begin!Wait … that doesn’t sound anything like a giving tradition! During the late 19th century (when scientists collected specimens with shotguns), an annual hunt was held every Christmas called the Christmas Side Hunt. The objective, being succinctly asinine, was to wander about in the woods and kill as many living things as possible in a single day. The winner would then, no doubt, set off immediately for the pub and wallow around under the table basking in the glory and admonishment of those around him.Now, while some of these Christmas traditions still might hold true for members of my Georgia-based family, the Side Hunt has fallen by the wayside in favor of more practical and society-serving activities.Enter the Christmas Bird Count. This year marks the 111th installment of one of the most prolific citizen-science initiatives in North America. Starting from a grass roots effort in 1900, the Christmas Bird Count has grown to a staggering 2,160 individual counts over a three-week period (Dec. 14-Jan. 5) and the 60,000 participants during the 2009-2010 count recorded nearly 56 million birds. Each of these specific “counts” is a real census area with a 15-mile diameter that is canvassed by a field party, which then reports back to the compiler for that count. The data collected is real-time, and is used to study long-term health of bird populations across North America. This yearly count, coupled with other surveys such as Project FeederWatch, the Breeding Bird Survey, and the Great Backyard Bird Count, also acts as a means to predict trends in terms of bird movements and wintering habitats.Now we come to the question plaguing you since the last paragraph: Who cares? I myself have constantly made this query as I try to justify to my friends standing in the middle of the road in my mono-chromatic Columbia-themed uniform blocking traffic and studying random hedges for my feathered quarry.The truth is that the Christmas Bird Count provides scientists with a data set of astronomical proportions. One hundred and eleven years of information is nothing to sneeze at and the conclusions about the state of population fluxes can be measured and validated. For example, in the late ’80s, CBC data was used to document the decline of the American black duck on its wintering territories and, consequently, conservation action was taken to limit the number of ducks taken until the population rebounded. This type of action is not uncommon, and the CBC information has been instrumental in creating a series of reports: 2009’s Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change; Common Birds in Decline; and WatchList 2007, which documents 217 species of birds that are considered imperiled. But there is great news, the Christmas Bird Count is a great way to get outdoors and enjoy the changing seasons while taking note of the things and changes around us. All the while, you will be helping to compile a data set that is pivotal in making good decisions regarding conservation and species protection. If you would like to volunteer for the brand new Eagle Valley count, go to and click on the Eagle Valley count to e-mail the count leader. Happy holidays and happy birding! Ben Watkins is an educator and graduate fellow at Walking Mountains Science Center. When he is not teaching school children out of doors, he enjoys exploring a variety of birding locations throughout Eagle County. The Nature Discovery Center opens Dec. 14 for the winter season. Learn more at

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