The Christmas Bird Count had a modest beginning in 1900. It was first organized by Frank Chapman (a864-1945) to counter the widespread American tradition of bird slaughter. At that time men and boys went out and used their new Christmas present to shoot as many birds as possible…and it was all still legal.
Chapman was of the shotgun school of ornithology. See something interesting or rare? Shoot it. No DNA, lousy cameras, almost worthless binoculars or scopes. The only sure thing was a bird skin.
Chapman was an ornithologist at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. He became curator of Birds in 1908 after twenty years at the museum. Chapman traveled widely across the Americas, wrote numerous books on his experiences and the standard field guide for eastern birds published in 1895 and printed in updated versions until 1935. Though the handbook contained no color prints, only line drawings, it included two pages of colored oblongs each with a precise label like “pearl gray” or “light olive green.”
In his 382-page autobiography Chapman does not make a single mention of the Christmas Bird Count. Yet Chapman was active in the early years of the Audubon Society and its conservation efforts. For years he edited the society’s magazine which began as “Bird-Lore.”
Not yet President, Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Chapman: “The destruction of the Wild Pigeon [Passenger Pigeon] and the Carolina Paroquet has meant a loss as severe as if the Catskills or the Palisades [both men were New Yorkers] were taken away.”
Chapman himself wrote “If our studies of birds have no bearing on the progress and welfare of mankind they are futile. That they have such a bearing, and in an exceptional degree, we know to be undeniable; it is obviously, therefore, the function of the museum to demonstrate this connection in such a manner as to render apparent the bird’s place in nature.”
In his handbook he discussed the “economy of birds,” their place in the natural world and their importance as both prey and predator.
In 1889 Chapman was on an expedition in Florida and his group went to the Sebastian River where there were reports of the vanishing Carolina Parakeet. There they found a flock of fifty and Chapman shot and killed 13. Even is his autobiography he seems regretful that he did not kill more. Those thirteen skins were the only ones in the museum’s collection in New York. By 1910 there was a final report of the species in the wild. The last captive parakeet died in 1918. RIP.
Only 27 birders in 25 locations took part in the 1900 “Christmas Bird Census” in locations from Toronto to Pacific Grove, CA. That count did not even get a total of 100 species from all locations. One counter that first year was a kid named Alexander Wetmore in Wisconsin. He went on to become director of the Smithsonian Institution. After the first year Chapman himself did not participate, but the idea was too good to fail. In 1911 William Leon Dawson* and his partner found over 100 species in Santa Barbara. Each year now tens of thousands of birders participate worldwide and one count in Ecuador recorded over 500 species.
Now with over a hundred years of data, the CBC shows how species are wintering further north on this continent and tracks the decline, success or spread of various species from the vanishing Evening Grosbeak to the all-conquering Eurasian Collared-Dove.
One man Chapman worked with in New York was Ludlow Griscom, who later moved on to Harvard and encouraged the young Roger Tory Peterson to illustrate a bird field guide. Griscom was the grandfather of modern field birding, i.e.identifying a living bird without shooting it. He was the first scientifically trained bird man who insisted every bird could be identified in the field, without resort to a shotgun.
*In the 1920s Dawson published a definitive multi-volume account of the birds of California, never reprinted it is a valued collector’s item today.