In 1900, Frank Chapman, editor of Bird-Lore magazine, wrote:
"It is not many years ago that sportsmen were accustomed to meet on Christmas Day, 'choose sides' and then, as representatives of the two bands resulting, hie them to the fields and woods on the cheerful mission of killing practically everything in fur or feathers that crossed their path - if they could... Now, Bird-Lore proposes a new kind of Christmas side hunt, in the form of a Christmas bird-census, and we hope that all our readers who have the opportunity will aid us in making it a success by spending a portion of Christmas Day with the birds and sending a report of their 'hunt' to Bird-Lore before they retire that night." (Bird-Lore 2:192.)
Thus went the announcement of the first Christmas Bird Census, a project very much in keeping with Bird-Lore's motto: "A Bird in the Bush is Worth Two in the Hand." The following issue of the magazine listed 25 censuses, of which one was from New Brunswick. At Scotch Lake, York County, William H. Moore had gone out from 9 to 10 a.m. on Christmas Day 1900, and recorded 36 birds of nine species.
The counts now provide not only a sporting pastime for the participants, but a great amount of data about the early winter birdlife of this continent - data which illustrates the changing distribution and abundance of birds and, indirectly, of the health of our environment. A count is a day of fun and exploration outdoors, of enjoying nature, of companionship and sharing with others. It may involve friendly rivalry - competition between friends or between counts - but the principal objective is to cover a standard area, a 24-km-diameter circle, as completely as possible, tallying all the birds encountered, on one day during a period set each year by the Audubon Society.
Usually, the circle is divided into sectors, each covered by a party of one or more observers. Often, there are also people reporting the birds they see at their bird feeders or around their home. At the end of the day, sometimes at a potluck supper attended by many of the participants, the results from each party and feeder are combined to give totals for the whole area, taking care to avoid duplication, where the same birds may have been counted by more than one group. When the results are brought together with those of surrounding areas, there is a big enough sample to allow year to year and region to region comparisons for many species.
Winter is a difficult time for birds in New Brunswick. The weather is often severe and the food supply limited. Most insect-eating birds and many waterbirds migrate south to milder climates. Those that remain with us or come here from farther north are hardy birds able to withstand cold temperatures, if they can obtain enough food. Our winter birds survive by feeding on fishes, molluscs, seeds, fruits, the dormant stages of insects, or small mammals and birds.
During winter, the variety of birds in most habitats of New Brunswick is small. However, their numbers vary considerably from year to year; if a particular food, for instance spruce seeds, is in good supply certain species may be numerous. (That was the case in the winter of 1998-99.) Urban/suburban areas with lots of trees, shrubs, and bird feeders, and mixed and coniferous forests offer the best inland birding at this season.
Fresh water and the sea along the northern and eastern coast of the province are mostly frozen except where there are strong currents or warm water discharge from an industrial plant. The Bay of Fundy remains unfrozen, except for loose, shifting ice floes in its upper reaches. The outer bay has varied populations of waterbirds in winter, but elsewhere interesting locations are few and variety and numbers small.
The ten most numerous land birds recorded on Christmas Bird Counts in New Brunswick from 1991 through 1995 were: European Starling, Black-capped Chickadee, Evening Grosbeak, Common Redpoll, Rock Dove, Snow Bunting, American Crow, American Goldfinch, Mourning Dove and Blue Jay. Numbers of Snow Buntings and especially of Common Redpolls vary greatly from year to year. In fact redpolls often will not be among the ten most common and Tree Sparrow will. Of these birds, only Black-capped Chickadee and Blue Jay are likely to be reported on almost every count, as is the less numerous Common Raven.
Among water birds, the ten top species were: Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, Common Eider, American Black Duck, Oldsquaw, Common Goldeneye, Iceland Gull, Mallard and Razorbill.
Over the years, New Brunswick counts have revealed population changes in many species. Mainly there are annual fluctuations of moderate proportions, but some species, especially the finches, exhibit periods of scarcity punctuated by "invasion" years, when they are much more numerous than usual. Long-term increases or declines of certain species may be apparent to birdwatchers, but the Christmas Bird Count permits a numerical expression of these changes and suggests less obvious trends that we might otherwise overlook.
On New Brunswick Christmas Counts the most conspicuous changes have been a four-fold increase in Evening Grosbeaks during 1960-85 and of Bald Eagles since 1985 and the appearance and subsequent considerable increase of Mallards and Mourning Doves since the mid-1960's, and of House Finches since the late 1980s. On the other side of the coin, a few Gray Partridge were seen regularly 1960-68 but only once since. Smaller changes are indicated for Blue Jay (70% increase 1960-72), Common Raven (50% increase 1960-72, 25% decline 1972-85), Black-capped Chickadee (50% increase since 1985), Boreal Chickadee (65% decline 1975-85), and House Sparrow (70% decline since 1985).
And so it is, that this Christmas season, we will once again follow Frank Chapman's suggestion to "hie [us] to the fields and woods" to "spend a day with the birds" and report our results. Snow, rain, high winds, or bitter cold won't stop us; buoyed by the birdwatcher's perpetual hope of making a discovery, we'll be continuing a long tradition!
David Christie, revised Oct. 1999
Christmas Bird Count data for Canada and USA.