Excerpt: The Christmas Count

The following is an excerpt from Flock Together: A Love Affair with Extinct Birds by B. J. Hollars (Nebraska, 2017). Hollars is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire.

 

From Chapter 8: The Christmas Count

 

On Christmas Day 1900, thirty-six-year-old Frank Chapman—then an associate curator of ornithology and mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History—took to the woods near his New Jersey home in search of every last bird he could find.

While the day started off cold, temperatures in Englewood rose to a seasonably warm forty-seven degrees, a wind blowing in from the southwest rocking the trees’ uppermost branches. Chapman focused his eyes into those trees for much of the morning and was rewarded for his efforts, spotting a shrike, a Barred Owl, and a Red-shouldered Hawk, not to mention 150 or so Tree Sparrows, among others crisscrossing the skies. In total, Chapman identified nineteen species that Christmas; a good day of birding, to be sure, and one made all the better by the young ornithologist’s successful effort to replace one
holiday tradition with another.

Prior to 1900, a portion of America’s hunters utilized Christmas Day to partake in what were then known as “side hunts,” a pastime in which hunters divided into teams to slaughter most every animal nature had to offer. Though Christmas carols speak to the contrary, at the side hunts’ conclusion, there were no partridges left in any pear trees.

Not only were these side hunts in direct opposition to the goals of the budding conservation movement, but for a man like Chapman—who admired, respected, and enjoyed nature thoroughly—the activity may have seemed indefensible. Chapman was hardly above “collecting” birds (as was the style at the time), but he did so more for study than for sport. By the turn of the twentieth century, Chapman’s method of collection was already shifting from guns toward something more cerebral.

What if, he wondered one day, we counted creatures rather than killed them?

Chapman proposed his idea in the December 1900 issue of Bird-Lore magazine, for which he served as editor.

“Now Bird-Lore proposes a new kind of Christmas side hunt,” his article explained, “in the form of a Christmas bird-census.”

For many, it proved an enticing alternative, one that preserved the spirit of the hunt while preserving the lives of animals as well. In an effort to sway the more competitive hunters, Chapman encouraged participants to share their lists of sightings with Bird-Lore, promising to publish a portion of the results. Rather than dedicate magazine space to the traditional photos of hunters posing stoically alongside their kills, Chapman hoped the lists might sate the competitive hunters’ palates.

“Then this desire to know definitely,” he writes, “which prompts us to kill, will be gratified without the shedding of blood, and at the same time our inherent interest in animals will have been so aroused that we will recognize our kinship with them and in doing so become protectors, not destroyers.”

Hollars_jacket.indd

Chapman was but one of many outdoorsmen from the era whose evolving views on hunting were linked to a newfound kinship with the natural world. And on Christmas morning 1900, more than a few took Chapman up on his call for a census rather than a hunt. As he scanned the skies, so, too did twenty-six others, their combined efforts providing bird data on twenty-five separate locations throughout the United States and Canada. In total, that first count yielded over eighteen thousand individual bird sightings representing eighty-nine individual species. Though modest in number of participants and locations, Chapman surely deemed his census a success. After all, it was the first step toward eroding an unsavory hunting practice, not to mention its usefulness as a data-gathering tool.

Despite its modest start, the popularity of the Christmas Bird Count was soon to dramatically rise. The National Audubon Society, which now sponsors the event, reports that by 1950, the 25 initial locations had increased to a whopping 403. By 2008 they had reached over 21,000. This increase in locations was directly linked to an increase in participants; while those first twenty-seven bird census takers had performed admirably, by 1950 the band had grown into a battalion forty-six hundred strong, increasing to a brigade of sixty thousand by 2008.

While these explosive numbers certainly speak to the growing popularity of birding, keep in mind that not all of these birders are seasoned experts. Christmas Counts serve as an entry point for many amateurs anxious to give birding a try alongside the pros.

Which is how I enter the scene: droopy-eyed, binocular-less, and without a clue of what is to come.

The day following the Nelson Christmas Count, I dedicate my Sunday afternoon to returning to the wilderness. Or rather, to the suburban wilderness just off of Highway 93, veering toward a neighborhood to pay my respects to Lars. I weave deeper down those streets, eventually pulling onto Lars Road—the owl’s namesake—where a crowd fifteen or so strong confirms I’m in the right place.

Lars’s fan club is a committed bunch—men and women mostly from Minnesota who made the drive and braved the temperatures to spend a bit of time with our owl of the hour. I suit up to join them, pressing my hands to the heater for one last moment of warmth before exiting the van and crunching down the road toward the others. A part of me (the sane part) wants nothing more than to turn back toward the van, yet even I’m beginning to understand the momentousness of the occasion; that we have been blessed with a rare guest, and that the least we can do is welcome him.

Moments later, I take my place alongside a woman buried inside a parka.

“How long you been out here?” I ask.

“Oh, since around one or so,” she says.

I check my watch; it’s nearing 4:00 p.m.

For fifteen minutes I infiltrate their group, enjoying a bit of birding fellowship among the friendly strangers. In unison, we aim our binoculars toward the tree, watching with great admiration as Lars does a whole lot of . . . nothing.

That is, until he does something—making a brief dart from one side of the road to the other, trading one pine tree for the next. The crowd issues a half-frozen whisper—“There he goes!”—as we redirect binoculars toward his new locale.

We avert our eyes from our owl just long enough to bask in our accomplishment. Though, of course, we ourselves have accomplished nothing, not really, other than enduring the cold. Yet for a moment, we allow ourselves to grin goofily at one another, to bite the insides of our half-frozen cheeks in a show of restraint for our shared enthusiasm.

I wonder if Frank Chapman felt this same ebullience on Christmas Day 1900, if he, too, had grinned goofily as he spotted his shrike, his Barred Owl, his Red-shouldered Hawk, proud of having spared the lives of so many birds by encouraging hunters to spare their bullets.

One hundred and fifteen years removed from that first Christmas Count, Chapman’s contribution is more apparent than ever. Here we are—human icicles—shivering in unison for a chance to see an owl.

Not to shoot him, but to see him: to count him and give him a name.