Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Christmas Bird Count
Nature Bulletin No. 622-A   December 18, 1976
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

One evening last winter a friend was puzzled by some lively chatter overheard while waiting for an elevator in a Loop building. He caught such unusual expressions as "siskin, kittiwake, my life list, dickcissel, and a raft of lesser scaups." His curiosity got the better of him. It turned out that these people were members of the Chicago Ornithological Society who gather at the Field Museum of Natural History on the second Wednesday of each month to discuss birds and bird-watching. In January the teams of birders who took part in the Christmas bird count in the Chicago region report the numbers of each kind seen. The different teams banter and boast about the length of their lists or the rare species found.

This idea of a Christmas bird count was started in New York City back in 1900. It was a game or winter sport played according to certain rules to take the place of hunting with a gun and to furnish a census of winter bird life. The idea quickly caught on and each Holiday Season for over a half century has seen thousands of enthusiasts scattered across the continent taking part in the fun.

Each count is always made on one day within a 15-mile circle chosen by a team. Each party keeps notes on the localities visited, the weather, hours spent, number of miles traveled on foot or by car, the types of habitat -- and also full details on any rare birds in case any of the other teams are skeptical. This winter the official season is December 18 to January 2. Each year all of the reports from the United States and Canada are assembled and Published.

The Christmas bird count is good scientific data for detecting changes in bird populations over a long period of years. It is also the best nation- wide record of winter bird life. For example, the Illinois Natural History Survey has issued an illustrated publication entitled, "Hawks and Owls Population Trends from Illinois Christmas Counts. " This study is based on several hundred censuses made throughout the state in the years 1903-1955. Hawks and owls on the whole have declined in numbers. Beginning in 1919 certain kinds were protected by law and have suffered less than the others. Since 1959 all hawks and owls are protected. The bald eagle is one of the birds of prey which has increased in Illinois.

As may be expected, the largest number of counts in Illinois are made in the Chicago region, -- an area within 50 miles of the Loop. Last Christmas, for instance, fourteen teams made censuses. The people in each party, some experienced ornithologists and others just learning their first birds, rush about within their 15-mile circle for several hours. The fourteen groups tallied a total of over 328, 680 birds representing over 100 species. Mallard ducks were most numerous. Only one or two individuals were seen of 15 or 20 species such as the pine siskin and other rare visitors from the far north, or a ruby crowned kinglet and a blue winged teal which failed to go south for the winter.

Some of the favorite birding spots in the Chicago region are the Palos forest preserves, the DesPlaines River and Salt Creek valleys, Lincoln Park and the Chicago lake front, Waukegan and the Illinois Dunes, the Barrington-Palatine vicinity with its forest preserves, and the Indiana Dunes. Perhaps the favorite of all is the Morton Arboretum where its great variety of trees and shrubs tempts almost any land bird to pause and be counted.

Anyone interested in joining one of the monthly field trips conducted by the Chicago Ornithological Society should drop a note to Field Chairman, Peter Dring, Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, P. O. Box 92, Willow Springs, Illinois 60480.

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