In the late 1800s, an unfortunate holiday tradition was hastening the extinction of bird species all over North America.

The Side Hunt, held each year on Christmas Day, was a festive slaughter whereby armed participants wandered the countryside shooting at every bird and small animal they saw. At the end of the hunt, teams tallied their kills to find out which side won.

Needless to say, birds were not among the winners – and conservationists, including famed ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, became increasingly alarmed at the resulting destruction. So they decided to tweak the Side Hunt tradition, proposing that participants arm themselves with field glasses rather than rifles, and that they count the birds rather than kill them.

So it was that the very first Christmas Bird Count was held on Christmas Day in 1900. Today, the Bird Count is one of the largest “citizen science” efforts regularly held anywhere in the world. According to the Audubon Society, “each year tens of thousands of volunteers throughout the Americas brave snow, wind, or rain, and take part in the effort. Audubon and other organizations use data collected in this long-running wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations – and to help guide conservation action.”

That effort extends to our own Sonoma Valley – a diverse region with more than 150 bird species – and for the past several years Sonoma Ecology Center has been a lead organizer of the Christmas Bird Count through our expertise, logistical help and extensive maps and data. The results of the count help biologists understand how bird populations are changing in our region over time; added to the national and international figures, scientists are able to learn much about how bird species are faring around the world. (Results are formally published in “American Birds,” a publication of the National Audubon Society, and online at a Cornell University website, www.christmasbirdcount.org.)

This year’s local Christmas Bird Count in Sonoma Valley, the 12th annual, takes place on Friday, Dec. 30, from dawn to dusk. The designated region for local bird-counters is a circle 15 miles in diameter with its center in El Verano – meaning our census-takers will be covering upper Sonoma Valley, Glen Ellen, Trinity Road, Sonoma Mountain, Wingo, and even Shollenberger Park in Petaluma. Each team typically consists of three to six participants led by an experienced birder.

To sign up for the Sonoma Valley CBC, contact Gene Hunn at 707-981-7301 or by email at enhunn323@comcast.net. Dress for the weather and if available bring binoculars, spotting scopes and bird guides. All levels of birders are welcome. Immediately following the Dec. 30 Christmas Bird Count, come join our tabulation dinner celebration at Sonoma Community Center, Room 110, starting at 4:30 p.m. Dinner costs $10 at the door; please RSVP to enhunn323@comcast.net if you plan to attend.

Contacts

Gene Hunn, Madrone Audubon Society
707-981-7301, enhunn323@comcast.net

Richard Dale, Sonoma Ecology Center
707-996-0712 ext. 106, richard@sonomaecologycenter.org

Tom Rusert and Darren Peterie, Sonomabirding.com
707-939-8007, sonomanature@gmail.com

 

From ‘Side Hunt’ to Christmas Bird Count: How Citizen Science Won the Day