A Group Effort: The Christmas Bird Count

Jan 29, 2019

Credit Wiki Commons / bit.ly/2Ti4Adl

The chaos of the natural world is a wonder to be enjoyed, but there is also a strong human impulse to impose order.  In an effort to understand, we measure, count, name, categorize, and catalogue.  It’s like a parent entering an adolescent’s messy room: socks and underwear in one drawer, shoes and sneakers lined up, games and puzzles on the shelf.

These thoughts occur to me on a bright cold day in early January as I participate in the yearly Christmas Bird Count, organized and led by Mass Audubon’s Mark Faherty.  He and a trusty (crusty? rusty?) band of volunteers wander along a prescribed route in Truro.  Our mission: to take a veritable numeric snapshot of all the birds in this particular area on this particular day. 

And so, hunched over spotting scopes or peering into binoculars, scanning the ocean waves or dense swampy thickets, we identify and count birds.  Swathed in layers of clothing, hoods, parkas and funny knit hats, in gloves and mittens; fortified by pocket warmers, brownies (thank you Ginie!), and hot soup and coffee from Savory, we soldier on.

We saw a variety of birds, ranging in size from a Golden-crowned Kinglet (weight: .2 ounces, wing span: four inches) to a Great Blue Heron (weight: over 5 pounds, wing span: six feet).

And as we go about our task, the (almost) always patient Mark guides his hearty volunteers, who have different levels of expertise and ability, through the process.  He reminds me of a Middle School soccer coach who wants to use every player on the bench, but would also prefer to have a winning season. 

Our involvement is central to the process, but so is the accuracy, and therefore the integrity, of the count.  I am informed that the white throat of that sparrow in the brush does not make it a White-throated Sparrow; its rufous wings make it a Swamp Sparrow.  Mark is an excellent coach.

The Christmas Bird Count in one form or another has been going on for well over a hundred years, and provides a valuable historical record of birds in our area.  (There is also a Breeding Bird Survey in the spring).  I remember a few years ago when we had hundreds, possibly thousands, of American Robins on our count; this year, a handful.  But we just count.  Others extrapolate, analyze, and look for long term trends.  Imagine one hundred years from now- let’s be hopeful here- some researcher looking at our count and saying that was what was here in this particular place on this particular date.  

But that is not on our minds this cold day, when, gazing up at a lichen-loaded Locust festooned with tiny Pine Siskins, we delight in the natural world.