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North American Birds, from chickadees to sand-hill cranes, got their greatest going-over in 56 years during the Christmas-New Year holidays. The country's most ardent bird watchers, 8,000 strong—men and women, boys and girls, experts and neophytes—turned out in scientifically organized groups, setting records for bird watching which would have been considered impossible only a few years ago.
This army of birders, marshaled into more than 575 groups, combed their favorite birding spots in nearly all the states and Canadian provinces. Their aim was to see as many as possible of the continent's several billion land birds and of its legions of sea birds along the coasts. No single birder or group could hope to spot as many as 200 of the 650 or more recorded species. But each group was out to establish a record.
Bird watching has been described as a hobby, a sport and a scientific pursuit. Whatever it is, the birders proved that it is big doings. This was no haphazard, leisurely observation of the feathered fauna of America, but the highly organized 56th annual Christmas Bird Count under the aegis of the National Audubon Society and in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The rules were strict and the competition keen. Foul weather couldn't hold the watchers back. Task forces were deployed in military style. Predawn blackness found them deep in the woods hooting up owls. Noon saw them gnawing sandwiches while keeping an eye out for just one more species. And in the darkness, long after nightfall, they were still huddled over their lists, checking their totals and gloating over rare finds they had made during the long day.
Top honors for the entire nation went to the group at Cocoa on the east coast of Florida. There 42 watchers, under the leadership of Allan D. Cruickshank, ran up the phenomenal total of 184 species, the greatest number ever attained on a Christmas Bird Count. With this total, Florida nosed out its chief competitor, San Diego, Calif. Despite an all-out effort the California birders couldn't do better than 168 species, although they had won the previous year with 175.
Cruickshank, determined that Florida would shade California, planned his campaign long in advance. The rules state that the count must be taken within one 24-hour period from December 24 to January 2 in an area not greater than a circle with a 15-mile diameter.
Several years ago he had carefully chosen the best bird-watching spots in his area. Then calipers and maps were put to use to make sure that the birdiest locations fell within the required circle. Dr. Cruickshank's region is rich in birds, and he selected the cream of it. For weeks before December 27, the day of the count, Cruickshank and a corps of trained local observers studied the chosen area thoroughly, noting the movements of such rare species as avocets, white pelicans and scissor-tailed flycatchers so they would be able to spot them on the big day.
Then he picked his watchers with care. Cruickshank had announced that he was out to win. To increase his chances he imported some of the country's best bird watchers, among them Roger Tory Peterson, whose paintings, commissioned by SI, appear on the next four pages. Peterson flew down from his home at Old Lyme, Conn. Other imports included Miss Farida Wiley, bird-trip leader of the American Museum of Natural History; Dr. Joseph Howell, professor of zoology at the University of Tennessee; and Henry Bennett, supervisor of the Corkscrew Sanctuary. These, plus a contingent of sharp-eyed local birders, gave Cruickshank a phalanx which he divided into 9 task groups.
Cruickshank had the manpower, and he drove his groups unmercifully. Each party was assigned to a specific area and given a typewritten route annotated with locations of nests, favorite feeding grounds and other pertinent data. At noon they rendezvoused on a lonely back road, where they gobbled their lunches while watching unsuccessfully for the seldom-seen western kingbird and the scissor-tailed flycatcher. Then they plunged back into woods and marshes with orders to get certain species missed during the morning, and in some cases were successful.
PETERSON'S PROWESS PAYS OFF
All told, the Cocoa group spent over 500 man hours in the field, covered more than 1,000 miles by foot and car, saw almost 78,000 birds in achieving their record count. Greater importance is attached to the number of species than to the number of individuals.