#Lookback: Christmas Goes to the Birds – A History of the Christmas Bird Count in Fremont County

A County 10 series in partnership with the Fremont County Museum System
where we take a #Lookback at the stories and history of our community and
presented by Mick Pryor, Financial Advisor with Edward Jones.

Christmas is often filled with beautiful decorations, holiday spirit, delicious food, and for some Americans, a Christmas Bird Count (CBC) that has been a tradition since 1900. The CBC is an annual winter census of birds administered by the National Audubon Society. The annual Christmas Bird Count has been happening in Wyoming since 1933 and in Fremont County since 1939. Riverton, Dubois, Crowheart, and Lander make up the CBC participation in the county, among multiple other towns in Wyoming that organize. Lander was the first town in the county to join the count in 1939 followed by Dubois in 1965, Crowheart in 1996, and Riverton in 2003.

The idea of counting birds during the Christmas season was proposed by Frank Chapman, an ornithologist, and naturalist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Chapman wanted to provide an alternative to the longstanding tradition of hunting birds on Christmas. The first participants enjoyed a new form of competition; trying to identify the most bird species in a single day. Thanks to the efforts of the first 27 Christmas counters, 90 bird species were counted on Christmas day. The data from the count was submitted to Bird-Lore, Chapman’s publication that would later become the famed Audubon Magazine in 1941.

The Christmas “side hunt” was another holiday tradition throughout the 1900s, where hunters would choose “sides” and compete to bring back the largest heap of feathered or furred animals. At the time, birds and other animals were often considered limitless natural resources. Earlier, the nineteenth century saw the boom of Victorian feathered hats and the consequent decline of bird populations. Conservation at this time was in its beginning stages, with concern growing over the falling populations of game and nongame birds. The landmark Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed in 1918. Chapman’s first Christmas Bird Count in 1900 was an extraordinary way to bring attention to the necessity of conservation.

The number of volunteer counters and species tallied since the first count in 1900 has continued to rise steadily over the years. Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 54,533 volunteers of the 121st CBC recorded 664 species in the United States alone. In total, volunteers put in 130,059 hours and walked 539,359 miles. In Wyoming, 72,705 birds of 116 species were recorded by 357 field counters and 105 feeder counters. Every tally and observation helps add to the 12 decades of data that assist researchers in discovering meaningful trends.

Each year, volunteers have braved cold December weather to be a part of tens of thousands of volunteers that participate in one of the largest and longest-running citizen science efforts in the world. The annual event creates invaluable data that is interpreted by the Audubon Society and other organizations to assess the health of bird populations. This data helps to guide conservation efforts by illustrating how populations have changed over time and space by providing a long-term perspective. The data is also used in Audubon’s Common Birds in Decline Report which documents population trends over time, including impacts from development, climate change, and deforestation.

In order to identify birds, birders rely on vocalizations, markings, and flight patterns. A birding circle is fifteen miles in diameter, so teams and individuals split the circle into sections to cover more ground. Within each circle, a tally of every bird seen or heard that day is recorded, including the species and the total number. The count occurs every year between December 14th and January 5th for one day only, while the longer count period can still be used to track and record findings. Birders, students, enthusiasts, and scientists of all ages and skillsets are welcomed participants. Contact Fremont County’s Red Desert Audubon Society for more information on how to get involved.

Mary Back is fondly remembered as an artist, dude rancher, and naturalist who organized the Christmas Bird Count in Dubois. Her painting of a Northern Shrike from 1973 is pictured on exhibit at the Headwaters Arts and Conference Center in Dubois.

Next up for the Fremont County Museum

December 11, 1-4 pm at the Riverton Museum, “Christmas Open House”

December 11, 1-4 pm at the Riverton Museum, “Toy Building”

           Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

December 17, 6:30 pm at the Dubois Museum, “Christmas Caroling at the Museum”

           Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

December 18, 5-7 pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Old Fashioned Christmas Open House”

           Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

Thru December 30, 9-5 pm at the Pioneer Museum, “The Arapaho Way” By Sara Wiles

           Photography on exhibit in the Western Gallery through December

Thru October 2022, 9-5 pm Monday-Saturday, at the Pioneer Museum, “Hurrah for The Cowboy: Men of the Open Range” Art Exhibition

The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander, and the Riverton Museum need your financial support. In the current economic environment, the museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits, and services that have become their hallmark over the last four years. Please make your tax-deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Fremont County Museums 450 N 2nd Rm 320 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.  

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