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SHERIDAN — Before the U.S. entered into the 20th century, Americans went outside around Christmastime and made a lively sport of bird hunting, tramping through the snow and shooting as many birds as they possibly could.
While it was all good fun, about 114 years ago as bird populations declined, someone wised up and said, “Let’s count them instead.”
And that, according to Sheridan Christmas Bird Count compiler Julie Rieder, is how the nationwide Christmas Bird Count came to be an annual tradition enjoyed by novice and expert birders alike. It is a yearly project of the National Audubon Society.
In Sheridan, participation in the bird count began in 1969. The Story-Big Horn Christmas Bird Count began approximately 30 years ago. The three communities, lead by the Bighorn Chapter of the National Audubon Society, have been part of one of the largest, longest standing citizen science projects ever since.
This year, the Sheridan Christmas Bird Count will take place Saturday. The Story-Big Horn count will take place Dec. 28. Anyone with binoculars and a willingness to learn about birds is invited to participate.
“I had a blast. It’s terribly fun. I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to do it,” Tammy Mansfield said. “It’s exciting to see birds even if you don’t know what they are.”
Mansfield did her first Christmas Bird Count last year with her daughter, Katharine, who is fascinated with birds and will join the count this year, too.
Rieder agreed that spending an entire day tuning out the rest of the world and focusing on the sights and sounds of nature is an inviting prospect in the hurried holiday season.
“It’s an exciting, focused time for people to set everything aside and do something fun for a day. That’s why I love it,” Rieder said.
But the Christmas Bird Count is more than just a fun excursion.
It is a concerted data gathering effort that provides invaluable information for scientists, ecologists, teachers and more. “The beauty of it is that it’s a long-standing data set,” Rieder said. “To me, it’s a really powerful snapshot in time to look for changes.” Since data is collected across the U.S. within a certain window of time (Dec. 14-Jan. 8), it can be used to compare and contrast bird populations across the nation.
The data — which consists of observations about weather, food abundance and counts of each type of bird seen or heard on bird count day in each location across the states — can be used to track trends and changes over time, Rieder said.
For instance, in 114 years, some species have seen drastic declines while others, like the Eurasian collared dove, have increased. Eurasian collared doves have increased in a sweeping pattern across the United States from southeast to northwest in recent years, Rieder said. These changes can indicate climatic and ecological issues that may need to be addressed.
The national data is compiled in a searchable database by the National Audubon Society.
A count is conducted in the winter to monitor resident birds that overwinter in certain areas and in the spring to monitor migratory birds and their patterns.
In Sheridan, bird counters typically spot about 30 species in the winter and 60 in the spring, Rieder said.
The count in Sheridan is conducted within a 15-mile diameter circle centered at Sheridan Memorial Hospital on Fifth Street. The area is divided into units. Team leaders guide their team through their unit, driving or walking, and count each bird spotted by the team’s lookers. A recorder keeps track of how many of each species of bird is spotted, as well as weather and food data.
The count in Story-Big Horn is conducted similarly.
Each area also needs feeder watcher volunteers who can stay warm inside their homes and count birds at their backyard bird feeders.
It is requested that teams and feeder watchers count for eight hours from dawn to late afternoon on count day, although it is possible to split teams and work in shifts, especially if children are wanting to participate, Rieder said.
“I enjoy the camaraderie,” Story-Big Horn Christmas Bird Count compiler Jean Daly said. “I enjoy the people as much as anything. I enjoy getting out. It’s very peaceful to go out and sit and watch the birds.”
Daly has been the Story-Big Horn compiler, or organizer, since the count started there 30 years ago.
She originally got involved in the local Audubon chapter because it was fighting against the paving of Red Grade Road, which she also didn’t want to see happen. She stuck around because she discovered she really enjoyed watching and learning about birds.
Daly particularly enjoys migration times when bird species come and go. She also delights in seeing new bird species.
Daly’s advice to anyone thinking about joining the bird count but unsure if they should: “Just go.”
“It’s fun, and it’s interesting,” Daly said.
It’s a good way to get outside into the beauty in Sheridan County and do something beneficial — for science and for your own heart and mind.
Anyone wishing to join local Christmas Bird Counts is welcome.
The Sheridan count will be held Saturday. Contact Julie Rieder at 655-9024 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
The Story-Big Horn count will be Dec. 28. Contact Jean Daly at 674-9728 or email@example.com.
Feeder watcher volunteers are especially needed.
In order for a bird species to be considered “common” in the Christmas Bird Count, it must have been spotted at least four times in an area’s bird count history. That means any species spotted more than four times in Sheridan since 1969 are common. Birds spotted less than four times are considered infrequent.
Some common birds in Sheridan include: robins, mallards, pigeons (officially rock doves), house finches, house sparrows, European starlings, meadowlarks and Bohemian waxwings.
Some uncommon birds include: purple finches (recorded three times), dark-eyed Juncos, wood ducks, great blue herons, clark’s nutcrackers (all recorded twice), and snowy owls, white-winged crossbills, loggerhead shrikes and mountain bluebirds (all recorded once).