We've come a long way since the 19th century when a popular Christmas sport called the "side hunt" entailed shooting every bird seen on Christmas Day. Back then, whichever group came back with the most birds was considered the winner for the day. The tradition worried ornithologist Dr. Frank Chapman for obvious reasons, and in 1900 he started what he hoped would become an annual tradition, the Christmas Bird Count. Over 110 years later, the count is still conducted annually throughout the country. While some consider birding a sport (one that involves checklists and high counts, winners for the most bird species seen, etc.) the Christmas Bird Count is no longer a side hunt but a terrific way to monitor winter bird populations.
In the Ozarks, there are 8 count circles from Dallas Co. to Springfield to Big Spring country around Van Buren. The Christmas Bird Count takes place in these designated circles, a set area that can encompass thousands of acres. Within that circle, birders fan out to count individual birds. So, after a full day of birding in Missouri, bird counts often reflect hundreds of cardinals, flickers and juncos with species counts ranging from 60 on the low end to 120 (usually those circles with significant waterfowl populations). One active count circle in Missouri was established in the 1960s, and data from each bird count is stored online. In this one area, for example, one can see how many pintail were there in 1965, how many brown creepers in 1980, and so on. Audubon uses the CBC information to track changes in North American bird populations; in recent years, for example, hooded merganser populations in New England have soared while grosbeaks have declined.
I'll be in dry mesic woodlands on Saturday with someone I've never met counting woodland birds for the day. We plan to do some owling, calling in screech, barred, great horned owls to see how many may be detected that day. Check here to see if there's a circle in your area. Contact the local organizer if you'd like to join the fun! Otherwise, don't be nervous if you see a car stop in front of your house between now and January 4 so the counters can add your suet-feeding woodpeckers to their list.