HOLIDAY TRADITIONS: THE CHRISTMAS BIRD COUNT IN THE FLORIDA KEYS — HOLIDAY MAGAZINE

Holiday traditions are funky things in the Florida Keys. You might roast chestnuts over an open fire, but only if the temperature drops into the 60s and you know someone with a chestnut hook up. Instead of going sledding, you meander around on bikes, looking at Christmas lights with friends. The Key West Holiday Parade contains an unusually high, but also appropriate, number of drag queens.

One of the traditions I’m most fond of – one that is almost mainland normal – is the Christmas Bird Count.

The tradition started in December 1900 when Frank Chapman, the godfather of modern birdwatching, made a modest proposal. At the time, a very different tradition called the Christmas side hunt took place. People at a holiday gathering would split into teams, head into the countryside and gun down every bird or mammal they saw. Whichever side had the biggest pile of dead animals at the end was the winner. The results were often published in newspapers and sportsmen’s journals.

In his then-year-old publication Bird-Lore – a journal that would later become Audubon magazine – Chapman wrote that he felt the tradition of the Christmas side hunt was on its way out, that people were starting to turn away from the idea that the wanton destruction of wildlife was good clean fun. (Very few of those animals ended up in the pot for a holiday feast.) But he also felt it would be good to come up with a substitute. So he proposed something called the Christmas Bird Census. Basically, instead of going out and shooting every creature they saw, maybe people could just go out and count them.

That first year, 27 people responded to Chapman’s proposal and went out to 25 locations and counted a little over 18,000 individual birds of 90 different species. 

A new tradition was born.

The event has refined and grown over the last 122 years. It is now called the more user-friendly Christmas Bird Count. During the 2019-2020 count – the last one before COVID – 81,601 people went out in 2,646 locations and counted over 42 million individual birds of 2,566 different species. Most of the counts take place in the United States and Canada, but several take place in Central and South America.

Not only was it a new tradition, it was also one of the earliest, and most enduring, examples of citizen science, which is essentially a way of crowdsourcing data collection. Every year the count creates a giant snapshot of bird populations across the continent. Combing through all those snapshots, scientists and number crunchers can monitor the population health of numerous threatened and thriving species. The information can be cross-referenced with weather data and changes in habitat to gain a deeper understanding of how best to protect them. Also, it is pretty fun.

Each count circle tends to take on a character of its own. Some are private, organized by groups of friends. Some are public, open to birders of all abilities. The counts always take place over a span of three weeks – Dec. 14 to Jan. 5 — every year. Some people will only do one a year. Some people will go to Herculean efforts to participate in 6 or 8 counts every holiday season.

My first CBC took place in the early 2000s in the Middle Keys. It was a semi-private event, full of people who’d been doing it together for years – biologists, ornithologists, refuge managers, doctors, old-school bird experts. I half invited myself, though I didn’t really feel I was qualified to be there. We divided up into territories, and all covered various neighborhoods.  

After sunset, we all met at someone’s house to drink cocktails and compile the results. I felt as if I’d entered the Hall of Esteemed Florida Keys Naturalists and was a little unsure of myself. But it was the first year the National Audubon Society, which organizes the count, insisted people enter the data online, instead of mailing it in on a paper form. When they all learned I knew how to use one of those new-fangled computer things, I suddenly had a role.

Most of the people from that Middle Keys count are gone now – some died, some moved away. And that particular count sort of went with them. (The staff at the Big Pine Key National Wildlife Refuge has been organizing one in a slightly more northerly zone in recent years, but as we went to press with this article, dates for this year were not available.)

Historically, beginning in 1948, there had been a count circle centered in Key West. It had ceased in 1968, but in 2003 we at the Florida Keys Audubon Society decided to revive it. We also decided to open it to anyone who was interested, no matter their social connections or level of bird ID skills. (The best way to learn anything is by spending time with people who might know more than you.)

It’s hard to believe we’ve been doing it now for close to two decades. Some years we’ve seen close to 100 species as a group, including local specialties like the white-crowned pigeon, reddish egret, and great white heron, as well as the occasional Caribbean rarity, such as the western spindalis and red-legged thrush.

COVID threw something of a wrench into the works the last two years, but a small core group have kept the flame alive, covering as much territory as a half dozen people can. My friend Ellen and I, who usually cover everything west of White Street in Key West, even took the opportunity to start doing the morning half of the count by bike instead of car.

We’ll be doing it on Dec. 31 this year. We’re very much looking forward to opening it up again to anyone who is interested. It’s a nice excuse to spend the entire day birding and doing it guilt-free – because you’re doing it for citizen science. Also, it’s tradition.

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Anyone looking to participate in this year’s Key West Christmas Bird Count can reach out to Mark Hedden at [email protected]

Mark Hedden is a photographer, writer, and semi-professional birdwatcher. He has lived in Key West for more than 25 years and may no longer be employable in the real world. He is also executive director of the Florida Keys Audubon Society.