For the past 120 years, during approximately three weeks in late December and early January, millions of people have gotten up off their couches and headed out to the wilds of North America and parts of Central and South America to look for birds. For over a century, these staunch counters have birded in unique and defined areas across this vast region, to see what is around and to help assess the long-term health of our environment, millions of birds are counted annually. This winter 19,429,856 birds were counted in 1,168 ‘circles’, each 15 miles in diameter, to be exact! Each study area remains the same from year to year so data collected can be compared and analyzed by researchers. Birdwatchers must stay within the confines of these circles for each count they participate in and can only count numbers of birds seen or heard on the actual count day. ‘Extra’ species can be counted three days prior and three days after the count, but they do not add these to the totals reported.
Prior to 1900, hunters participated in a Christmas Side Hunt, where hunters took sides or teams and went out and shot everything they could?! The hunters with the most dead animals won. Wow, glad we don’t do that anymore! In 1900, Frank Chapman, an early ornithologist, convinced many to put down their guns and pick up their binoculars. So began the Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The results were modest as 27 scientists went out in 25 locations across North America, including Toronto, and found only 18,500 birds total, representing 89 species, on December 25th, 1900.
Flash forward to the present and during this CBC period, over 3,300 Ontario birders were out in the field looking for birds in 125 different count circles, and over 1,000 more people watched their own bird feeders and counted birds closer to home. In the area covered by The Standard newspaper, they held four counts with the number of species recorded in each in brackets after their names; Beaverton (41), Uxbridge (48), Carden Alvar (35) and Kawartha (41). The trends seemed to cross all four counts were natural seed and nut-based foods in the north are excellent. All the finches, many jays and nuthatches stayed in the north and did not migrate to central Ontario. This took on average about 7 or 8 species out of the potential CBC list for each count. Likewise rodent populations seemed to be good, so many owls did not migrate. As winter progresses this may change and some owls may show up this month. Snow Buntings were almost impossible to find, for the same reason, lots of food closer to their breeding grounds so they didn’t have to migrate toward southern Ontario. Hawks were likewise in low numbers, as were American Tree Sparrows. In fact, most sparrows, including my juncos, put on poor showings in our areas. Finally, woodpeckers were present in good numbers as were crows and jays. A Merlin was a nice wintering bird on the Beaverton CBC, and on the other three counts each recorded Bald Eagles. Beaverton almost always has several of these but extensive heavy ice conditions on Lake Simcoe seem to have driven them elsewhere, otherwise we would have had eagles on all four counts! An excellent find on the Kawartha count was a Canada Jay. This is a northern species that rarely wanders south of Algonquin Park, where even there it is in decline as a nesting species.
So what happens to all this data? Well, it is used extensively by scientists and researchers to study population trends and environmental health. Long-term analyses can be generated and human impacts can be assessed locally and regionally because many of these counts have existed for decades. Congratulations to all of you who helped with this worthwhile census!
Again, may I ask that if you see any of the northern owl species, such as Northern Hawk-owl, or Boreal, Snowy or Great Gray Owls, you email me privately at this address avocetnatureservices@gmail.com?
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.