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Tradition Takes Wing

December 25, 2003

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.

As such, it serves a cause higher than each counter's pride of accomplishment. The annual survey can sound an alarm much like, well, a canary in a coal mine. When tallies of certain species drop dramatically from one year to the next, scientists know to search for a cause. One of the best-known warnings involved sharp declines in bald eagles, brown pelicans and other birds. It turned out that DDT, concentrated through the food chain, was making egg shells too fragile to support an incubating chick. In 1972, the United States banned most uses of the pesticide, and the birds began to recover.

Such victories work to balance the sadness that veteran California birders feel when they spot fewer loggerhead shrikes near the subdivisions that replaced bird-friendly chaparral. This year, some lucky counter might spot a California condor, reintroduced around Big Sur and in the Los Padres National Forest north of Los Angeles after teetering on the brink of extinction. Now that would be a Christmas present.

To Take Action: To take part in a Christmas bird count, check for local chapters through the National Audubon Society website: audubon.org/bird/cbc/involved_soon.html.

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