Binoculars, Birds, and Winter:
An Unlikely Passion
Every December for the past 121 years, thousands of people across North and South America stand outside all day, eyes glued to the sky. They are not standing vigil for Santa; they’re counting birds. Flying birds, perching birds, wading and swimming birds. Nearing Christmas, on a designated day, groups gather with binoculars and bird books in hand—all volunteering for the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC). This year, Hannibal joined in, in large part because George Wisdom, a member of Mississippi Hills Master Naturalists, thought it a spectacularly good idea.
He targeted Mark Twain Lake for its varied habitats: water, agricultural fields, open fields, brush, woodlands, and urban areas. “The sited area, 15 miles in diameter, is defined by longitude and latitude.” He filled out the lengthy application; Audubon approved; and George began to extoll the benefits of standing in freezing weather counting … birds. The day, December 19, arrived cold, but at least not sleeting or snowing. George anxiously waited for volunteers to arrive. “I was hoping for ten. TEN!” But then, folks kept piling in. Twenty five showed up, from amateur backyard bird-feeder enthusiasts to those with decades of experience. Divided into nine teams (one hardy team of two did the 3:30 AM-to-dawn stakeout for owls), each group headed to their terrain, and began counting birds.
Now, why count a bird? Interesting fact from Dennis Foss, retired manager of the Mark Twain Lake … “Long ago, around Christmas, there’d be an annual bird shoot. One day, someone from New York suggested that instead of shooting them, count them.” Thus began a 121 year tradition.
Counting picks up trends: the health of a species, how changes in habitat affect bird populations, how recovery can happen, often dramatically. Witness the bald eagle, almost extinct because DDT made eggshells so thin they fractured. Solution? Ban DDT. Missouri went from virtually no nests to roughly 300 in 2020. But extinction goes on at an incredible rate. According to bird lover Kristy Trevathan, the North American avian population in the last 50 years has dropped from 10 billion to 7 billion. Today’s tiny Michigan-based yellow Kirkland warbler struggles to survive, according to bird counts. It needs pine groves. The state, by designating certain areas as preserves including private property, is giving this little bird a chance.
But to the tricky question … how, exactly, do you count a bird?
George Wisdom laughs, “Well, you count really fast. You get a flock estimate.” Dennis Foss uses the visual-ruler technique: count ten flying geese; see how much “air space” they take up, and multiply by the size of the flock. Art Suchland, a forester, has considered taking a flock photo and counting later.
This works for flocks, more or less, but what about woodland birds? Sparrows defeat even the best of birders. Dennis calls them LBB’s—little brown birds. Art admits that just seeing a drab colored bird in winter woods is pretty hard. “I made two short walks looking specifically for woodland birds. I found one nuthatch.” And he adds, “Bird songs don’t help much in winter. Birds sing during mating season in spring and early summer.”
So, how did Hannibal’s Christmas Bird Count go? What did 25 people see?
Participants covered 298 miles, counting 3,300 birds—49 species—ranging from an abundance of geese (960) ring billed gulls (467), blue jays (253), European starlings (253), and American crows (144)—to the much rarer sighted golden-crowned kinglet (6), northern harrier (1), and song sparrow (1).
One last question: Why do birds matter? Why should we care? What if all the birds went extinct? Would it affect our lives?
George Wisdom calls it the canary-in-the-mine syndrome. Miners took canaries down with them. If they hit a pocket of dead air, the canary let them know. It was a poor man’s life insurance policy. Their world was an enclosed cave; ours is an enclosed planet, protected by a very thin layer of air. Birds, flying to all parts of the world, are our messengers-of-life.
Or, as Dennis puts it: “What would the world be without opera? Without popular music? Without singing?”