Sunday, December 21, 2008

"A Christmas Bird-Census" and "that ornithological millennium"

Ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, Editor of Bird-Lore, the "official organ of the Audubon Societies," revived and revamped a quintessential American frontier tradition, the 'side-hunt', and launched a new millennium for bird conservation, "that ornithological millennium when the value of birds to man will be common knowledge."

Bird-Lore, the "official Audubon Societies publication" at the turn of the 19th Century

Frank M. Chapman launched a new era of public involvement with wildlife a century and eight years ago. The December 1900 issue of Bird-Lore (Volume 2, Number 6) carried Chapman's proposal to a growing readership of popular conservationists, particularly women:

"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."

Chapman's genius was to reawaken a popular frontier social event, long past, by way of substitution, a gathering for a bird count in place of a bird and wildlife shoot.

Chapman explained,
"It was 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 into the fields and woods on the cheerful mission of killing practically everything in fur or feathers that crossed their path--if they could.
These exceptional opportunities for winning the laurels of the chase were termed 'side-hunts,' and reports of the hundreds of non-game birds which were sometimes slaughtered during a single hunt were often published in our leading sportsman's journals, with perhaps a word of editorial commendation for the winning side."

Chapman continued,
"We are not certain that the side hunt is wholly a thing of the past, but we feel assured that no reputable sportsman's journal of today would venture to publish an account of one, unless it were to condemn it; and this very radical change of tone is one of the significant signs of the times."

Competitive indiscriminate hunts, side-hunts, for all manner of winged and wild things already were mostly a thing of the past, in large part, a victim of the Sportsman's ethics movement that had increasingly vilified indiscriminate slaughter during the later decades of the 19th Century. Side-hunts were a frontier phenomenon; they were tamed as the frontier was tamed.

Sportsmen were prominent among leaders of the early conservation movement. Up until the late 1800's nearly all conservationists were Sportsmen, and visa verse. There were social divisions over hunting wildlife during those times, but these divisions were not so much between hunters and non-hunters as between recreational sportsmen and the massive commercial kills of market gunners and pot-hunters feeding the public hunger for food and fashion among America's exploding population.

Legions of ladies launched a new century of bird conservation...

Chapman made poster-children of colorful birds, and engaged a growing army of concerned women to battle the millinery trade which fueled massive worldwide bird kills for colorful and elegant quills to adorn stylish ladies' hats. Extravagant urban bonnets might feature whole birds and even their nests with eggs arranged atop a fashionable lady's head!

Popular reaction to costly slaughter of birds for bird-adorned hats may have resulted in much more than the elimination of bird quills from bonnets; public reaction to the slaughter of beautiful birds moved a generation toward conservation and environmental concerns beyond birds and wildlife.

The Condor 3 (March 1901), 55.

A cartoon published in The Condor, a leading ornithologist's journal, pictured Chapman leading an army of women!

Chapman was buoyed by successes during that "red-letter year," 1900, which brought several giant leaps in bird conservation, capped-off by passage of the Lacy Act, the first federal law criminalizing the interstate transport of illegally acquired wildlife for sale.

Chapman's genius engaged conservation-minded people in conservation-related actions from active protest to bird-counting. This was a great leap forward from parlor-gossip and editorializing.

The first Christmas Bird Count was held Christmas Day 1900 by 27 participants in 25 locations throughout North America. The count did not immediately attract legions of bird watchers, but grew steadily, and over time became more structured and pervasive.

Today, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count (the CBC) is the largest and longest-running wildlife census, ever. This year's count period between December 14 and January 5 will involve close to 60,000 birders in thousands of counts worldwide (mostly in North America) in the 109th consecutive CBC. The CBC is an important social event for birders and naturalists, annually, much as were the seasonal side-hunts of frontier America.

Hats-off to Frank Chapman and the men and women who launched the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, and to all who helped to curtail the mass slaughter of North America's wildlife so that we may know it today!


John L. Trapp said...

This is a wonderful summary of the birth of the CBC, Bill. Well done!

John L. Trapp said...

Oops! Sorry, Tom, I was trying to give credit to someone else!

Tom Bain said...

Thanks, John. I had fun looking into the subject. Good birding to you!