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The Sky Ethic: Reflections During the Christmas Bird Count

Sometime before sun up, in the cold silence of the January dawn, I crunch through the snow-covered parking lot leading toward a café in the town of Nelson, WI. Reasonable folks might’ve done otherwise – hitting the “snooze” button and drifting back to sleep. Though admittedly, we who congregate at the cafe are hardly reasonable folks; we’re birders, and on Christmas Bird Count day, we’re citizen scientists, too.

Our mission: tilt our heads skyward, count the birds in our borders, and report our findings to provide a piece to the larger ecological puzzle.

Admittedly, it’s not a puzzle we expect to finish any time soon.

Origin of the Christmas Bird Count

Portrait of Frank Chapman

Ornithologist Frank Chapman

The Christmas Bird Count (originally called the “Bird Census”) began on Christmas Day 1900, when 36-year-old Frank Chapman – then an associate curator of ornithology and mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History – spent the day scanning the skies near his New Jersey home to take a survey of the birds in his region.

He was rewarded with sightings of 19 species, though his true legacy came not by the birds he saw, but by the tradition he spurred in not shooting them.

Prior to 1900, a portion of America’s hunters utilized Christmas Day to partake in what were then known as “Side Hunts,” a pastime in which hunters divided into teams to slaughter most every animal nature had to offer.

Not only were these hunts in direct opposition to the goals of the budding conservation movement, but for a man like Chapman – who admired, respected and enjoyed nature thoroughly – the activity likely seemed indefensible. Chapman was hardly above “collecting” birds (as was the style at the time), but he did so more for study than for sport.

By the turn of the 20th century, Chapman’s method of collection was already shifting from guns toward something more cerebral. What if, he wondered, we counted creatures rather than killed them?

leopold-foundation-blog-cardinals-in-winter

Photo of winter cardinals by Jim Pater (www.flickr.com)

Chapman proposed his idea in the December 1900 issue of Bird-Lore magazine, for which he served as editor. “Now Bird-Lore proposes a new kind of Christmas side hunt,” his article explained, “in the form of a Christmas bird-census…”

Chapman’s call is what brings me to the café 116 years later. We birders have gathered to receive our instructions, pick up our paperwork, and break into our teams. For the next several hours, we’ll commit ourselves to birding with binoculars rather than bullets, offering our findings to the scientific community.

What We Learn From Birds We’ve Lost

In total, my teammates and I will see 21 species that day – all the usual suspects: from Bald eagles to Goldens, to hawks to Horned larks. Yet despite all we’ll see, I’ll remember the day most for all that we don’t – namely, those birds we’ll never see again.

Mounted Passenger pigeon

The extinct Passenger pigeon in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Photo: James St. John (www.flickr.com)

On the drive home, a birding buddy asks if I can name all the “newly extinct” North American birds. I rattle off my list: the Eskimo curlew, the Carolina parakeet, the Great auk, the Heath hen, and of course the Labrador duck.

I note the Ivory-billed woodpecker, too, (allegedly extinct, at least), and the Passenger pigeon, whose demise Aldo Leopold wrote of so memorably in his elegiac essay.

After awhile my listing begins to subside, not for a lack of extinct birds, but because there are too many for me to remember. It’s a troubling predicament, one that highlights the speed with which we dispense even of the memory of those creatures we cannot see.

Leopold wrote of a similar problem, arguing that humans can behave most ethically “in relation” to those species “we can see, feel, understand, love or otherwise have faith in.” But how are we to feel any ethical responsibility toward those we can’t see, feel, or ever fully know?

Simply put: How are we to care about creatures no longer with us?

leopold-foundation-blog-red-headed-woodpecker

The Red-headed woodpecker, one of Wisconsin’s rare and declining bird species. Photo: John Zeiger

The answer, for me, is by caring about those who still are. In the case of birds, this means extending the land ethic into the sky and thinking often of those winged creatures that inhabit both realms – or at least inhabited both realms before their extinction.

Indeed, the birds still alive today teach us one lesson through their songs, though arguably, those now gone teach us a more important one through their silence.

Which is why, despite the cold and the early hour, on Christmas Bird Count day, I never give in to the allure of the “snooze” on the alarm clock. I now know better than ever the consequences of silence.

Top photo of snow geese in flight by Diana Robinson (www.flickr.com).