The National Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is a key part of birding. Besides offering a chance to enjoy the outdoors as well as the birds, the CBC has become a cherished sporting event. The very first counts were held on Christmas Day, 1900, in reaction to the notorious "side hunt", a then-popular holiday tradition, during which hunters went into the field on December 25th to shoot and bring back as many wild animals as possible. Choosing "sides", the hunters competed to finish with the biggest bag of furred and feathered creatures. The ornithologist Frank Chapman had the inspiration to organize a bloodless count in place of the killing event, and the Christmas Bird Count was born. The first CBC took place in 25 locations in the United States and Canada -- 15 of them in the Northeast. Twenty-seven participants found 89 species and 18,500 individual birds. The idea caught on, and today the Christmas Bird Count is an international phenomenon, taking place in over 2,300 locations worldwide.
Counts are conducted on a single day falling anywhere between December 14th and January 5th. Teams of birders are assigned separate territories within a 15-mile-diameter “count” circle. Often covering the same territory from year to year, teams drive along roads and stop frequently to survey varied habitats suitable for birds. Counters walk along the less busy roads and make forays into woods, fields, marshes and brushy areas in search of birds. All sightings and numbers of birds are carefully recorded on the spot. In the evening there is often a get-together where food and refreshments are enjoyed, after which the team leaders report their results. Not just a recreational sport, the Christmas Bird Count is also a citizen-science project, a unique way to track the populations and regional occurrence of birds. The vast database compiled using Christmas Bird Count records provides important information for bird conservation. There are now nine count circles in western Massachusetts, three of them in Berkshire County and six in the Connecticut River Valley.
The Allen Bird Club has conducted an official Christmas Bird Count in the Springfield area every year since 1954. Over the 40 years since 1980 the count has averaged 28 counters, 114 hours, and 68 species. The total number of species found over those years is 145. George Kingston serves as the current coordinator.
In 1991, a second circle was organized just to the west of the Springfield circle. Centered on and named after the peak of Cobble Mountain, this circle includes the city of Westfield and several neighboring towns. Over the past 30 years the count has averaged 20 counters, 78 hours, and 63 species. To date, the total number of species found over those years is 124. Seth Kellogg, the originator of the count and the coordinator for its first 25 years, has passed the baton to Janice Zepko, the current coordinator.
You can join the fun and contribute to these numbers! Contact a coordinator, grab your binoculars, dress warm and be prepared to be amazed by the birds that make our winters come to life.