A Christmas Songbird Tradition

Songbirds are an icon of our natural world, inhabiting nearly every landscape. These remarkable birds are worth noting and saving; just what the Christmas Bird Count through the Audubon Society promotes.

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Published in the East Oregonian, December 21st, 2019.

I talk a good game about hunting and fishing, and most of my fondest memories revolve directly around those two passions. This doesn’t detract from my holistic appreciation for the natural world, sans my double-gun and bird dog.

Among my favorite childhood memories is the barn-shaped bird feeder my grandparents hung in front of their Appalachian living room picture window. Cardinals, tit mouse, nuthatches, downy woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees would chatter and fuss for space at that feeder and suet cakes all winter.

I vividly recall one particular lazy weekend afternoon kicked back in an old recliner, sipping hot cocoa; my grandparents reading the paper and working word-finds. Their wood furnace stood atop a beautiful river rock hearth my grandpa had built. The blower kicked on, filling the room with the irreplaceable warmth of wood heat as I gazed contently at the first snow of December falling around these flittering songbirds and settling thick atop the feeder.

The American robin in its modest appearance has always been one of my favorite birds; their glorious melody signaling spring as the dew settles cold on freshly greened lawns. And then there are the jays. Blue jays were a common bully in my hometown, but the first time I laid eyes on a Steller’s jay was the first time I moved to the Pacific Northwest, cruising Highway 12 along the Lochsa River in Idaho. I still marvel at Steller’s jays as I scramble across the ridge tops in the Blues pursuing grouse and mule deer.

The two masked western species that I enjoy the most are the sleek, olive-yellow cedar waxwing, and the Bullock’s oriole with its black-accented, pumpkin plumage. Each sporting a Lone Ranger eye patch and swapping seasonal appearances at my little homestead near Waitsburg, WA. The Bullock’s oriole drops by in the spring to enjoy fruit bits that I hang from the clothesline and raise a clutch in the massive white alders along my spring seep. The cedar waxwing drops in from the higher elevations about the time snow finally settles in our little canyon. They gorge alongside robins on our ornamental crabapples and mountain ash.

Other common winter visitors to the local drylands are the house finch, gold finch, house sparrow, Oregon junco, white-breasted nuthatch and spotted towhee.

My musing over common songbirds may seem curious, but songbirds are anything but common. Songbirds have the ability to bring nature’s beauty to virtually any landscape. Be it a city block or secluded ranch home, songbirds are ever present. They connecting us with our natural world, inspire artists, develop ornithologists and arouse wonder in young and old. What’s more, songbirds seasonally migrate thousands of miles across North America from Canada to Mexico and points south. Their extensive migration makes songbirds vulnerable to severe weather patterns, food shortages and predators.

Aside from the natural life challenges, songbirds have been imperiled by hunting since the 19th Century. Hunting for plumage caused the extinction of species like the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet. Fortunately, our conservation ethics in North America improved, and the Lacey Act was passed in 1900, followed by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. Both Acts still stand today, protecting songbirds from harm in the U.S.

Prior to our conservation legislation, early ornithologists sought to change a Christmas tradition known as “the side hunt” where folks would choose sides and descend upon the hills. The side returning with the most species of fur and feather claimed a win. One hundred nineteen years ago on Christmas Day, the bourgeoning Audubon Society and ornithologist, Frank Chapman, imposed the Christmas Bird Count in lieu of the traditional hunt. That first Christmas, 25 different counts tallied 90 species, and the tradition stuck.

One of the longest-running datasets in the history of wildlife science, the citizen-driven data collection effort provides critical input to long-term population trend monitoring, as well as helping to guide conservation efforts in North America.

“The data collected by observers over the past century allow Audubon researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.” Explains the Audubon Society.

Understanding population trends is important for understanding the effects of environmental changes on migratory birds and natural resources. And, in some cases, population trends can serve as the proverbial canary in the mine shaft.

The beauty of the Christmas Bird Count is that anyone with the desire can participate. Bird counts are held within a 15-mile radius of a designated point. Participants may travel to a common location and disperse with an organized group or, if living within that 15-mile radius, folks can simply report the species that visit their feeder on the given count day.

Presently, Umatilla, Wallowa and Baker counties have a designated count center with point of contact information below. Union County has a count center but is not currently available for new participants. You can learn more about the Christmas Bird Count, participation in counts and review prior year and population status data by visiting https://www.audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count.

If you are looking for an exciting family activity over the holidays that gets you outdoors and contributes to a good cause, look no further. Even a hunter like myself is fascinated with the splendor of our native songbirds and bird-watching. And who doesn’t enjoy some friendly family competition over the holidays?

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