Birdwatchers count on their tradition at Christmas.

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Birdwatchers count on their tradition at Christmas.

By Tim Renken, St, Louis Post Dispatch

12/13/2001

What are Christmas birds and why should people count them?

There is no such thing as a Christmas bird. There is, though, a Christmas Bird Count, and it takes place here and elsewhere around the country. It's an important event for many birders because many got their start in the sport in the Christmas Count.

The count also is important both for its history and its purpose. Every year 40,000 to 50,000 people go out to their usual birding places in the typically cold weather of late December and count the birds they see - not only the species but the number. In some areas of the country this tradition has been honored for 100 years.

The sport of birding may have its popular beginnings, in fact, in the Christmas counts.

Late in the 19th century there was a tradition in some rural New England communities called "side hunting." Teams of men would go out into the country with shotguns and shoot every wild creature they could, mostly birds. The team with the most "head" at the end of the day was the winner.

Even in those days some people were aghast at this sport, which was born largely because there was so little true game in New England in the late 1900s.

One objector was Frank M. Chapman, a distinguished New York ornithologist. He urged people to count, rather than shoot, birds. And he organized the first count, conducted by 27 people in 25 locations, including Missouri.

The next year at Christmas another count was done and the tradition grew as the ghastly side hunts died out. This holiday season some 50,000 volunteers in all 50 states, the Canadian provinces, parts of Central and South America, the West Indies and Pacific Island will count birds in more than 1,800 circles 15 miles in diameter.

The idea is to track winter bird populations as a way of monitoring the overall health of the environment. The census isn't scientific because it is so informal and is conducted by volunteers. But it is important to ornithologists because it is so big and so old, with 100 years of data in some locations.

Of the several counts around here, at least three are seeking more volunteers. Newcomers will be placed in groups of experienced birders. Volunteers should bring lunch and dress appropriately because they will be getting in and out of cars all morning.

Those counts are:

* Saturday, from the lodge at Pere Marquette State Park, Grafton, Ill. The leader is Irene Mondhink, 618-885-5233 or 618-498-5335.

* Tuesday, at Carlyle Lake. Leader is Dan Kassebaum, 618-233-5451.

* Dec. 29 from the headquarters parking lot at the Busch Wildlife Area, 8 a.m.-noon. The leader is Tom Parmeter, 314-921-6017.

* Jan. 1 at Orchard Farm in St. Charles County. Leader is Randy Korotev, 314-993-0055.
 

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