Now in its 104th year, the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count is a holiday tradition, its bevy of binoculars as sure a sign of winter as menorahs and wreaths. Between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, tens of thousands of volunteers, mostly in the United States but also in Canada, Latin America and the Pacific Islands, fan out to assigned areas and count all the birds they see in a single day. What better way to forget a perplexing terror alert?
Like many holiday rituals, this one has both a religious and a secular side. Practicing Birdhists solemnly study Old Testament (Roger Tory Peterson's venerable "A Field Guide to Birds") and New (David Sibley's upstart "Sibley's Guide to Birds") for answers to age-old questions. Was that a white-winged scoter or a surf scoter? A Cooper's hawk or a red-shouldered one? Others are in it just for the company, feathered or otherwise. Up at dawn to share a sunrise symphony of warbles and trills, first-timers and bird nerds alike enjoy the camaraderie and, truth be told, the competition. Did you spot that red-breasted nuthatch? You mean you've never seen a vermilion flycatcher?
The counts began on Christmas Day 1900 as an alternative to another holiday tradition known as a side hunt, in which participants chose sides and competed to see who could shoot the most birds. Already concerned with a decline in bird populations -- a Boston socialite formed the Audubon Society to campaign against feathered hats -- ornithologist Frank Chapman proposed a Christmas bird census that would count live birds instead of dead ones. That first Christmas drew 27 volunteers. This season's count will draw more than 50,000, a holiday custom that, like many, is passed from one generation to the next. The survey has become the longest-running database in ornithology.