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THE BIGGEST BIRD WATCH
John O'Reilly
January 16, 1956
More than 8,000 took part in this year's Christmas Bird Count. Here is a comprehensive summary of the record-breaking event with paintings by Roger Tory Peterson of his choicest birds.
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January 16, 1956

The Biggest Bird Watch

More than 8,000 took part in this year's Christmas Bird Count. Here is a comprehensive summary of the record-breaking event with paintings by Roger Tory Peterson of his choicest birds.

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SPECIES SEEN IN WINNING BIRD COUNT

Forty-two observers in Cocoa, Fla. broke the existing record of species seen in a Christmas Count--175 by San Diego watchers in 1954--by definitely identifying 184 species. These were:

Common loon

12

Red-throated loon

1

Horned grebe

104

Pied-billed grebe

212

White pelican

48

Brown pelican

520

Gannet

85

Double-crested cormorant

1,200 +

Water turkey

78

Man-of-war bird

5

Great blue heron

83

American egret

430

Snowy egret

580

Louisiana heron

128

Little blue heron

116

Green heron

8

Black-crowned night heron

26

Yellow-crowned night heron

2

American bittern

2

Least bittern

4

Wood ibis

62

Glossy ibis

40

White ibis

720

American brant

3

Mallard

14

Black duck

7

Mottled duck

24

Gadwall

42

American widgeon

285

Pintail

1,250+

Green-winged teal

24

Blue-winged teal

175

Shoveler

108

Wood duck

2

Redhead

240

Ring-necked duck

156

Canvasback

480

Lesser scaup

36,000 +

Bufflehead

5

Old squaw

2

White-winged scoter

1

Surf scoter

1

Ruddy duck

144

Hooded merganser

4

Red-breasted merganser

38

Turkey vulture

92

Black vulture

34

Sharp-shinned hawk

14

Cooper's hawk

5

Red-tailed hawk

16

Red-shouldered hawk

15

Bald eagle

11

Marsh hawk

16

Osprey

4

Peregrine falcon

1

Pigeon hawk

2

Sparrow hawk

122

Bobwhite

9

Sand-hill crane

81

Limpkin

2

King rail

14

Clapper rail

7

Virginia rail

5

Sora

34

Florida gallinule

42

American coot

12,000 +

Piping plover

16

Ringed plover

145

Wilson's plover

2

Killdeer

182

Black-bellied plover

94

Ruddy turnstone

172

American woodcock

2

Wilson's snipe

53

Spotted sandpiper

11

Willet

11

Greater yellowlegs

54

Lesser yellowlegs

32

Red knot

11

Least sandpiper

72

Red-backed sandpiper

683

Dowitcher

62

Semipalmated sandpiper

410

Western sandpiper

42

Marbled godwit

1

Sanderling

284

American avocet

13

Parasitic jaeger

3

Great black-backed gull

2

Herring gull

240

Ring-billed gull

424

Laughing gull

415

Bonaparte's gull

82

Forster's tern

76

Common tern

4

Least tern

1

Royal tern

650

Cabot's tern

6

Caspian tern

48

Black skimmer

520

Mourning dove

212

Ground dove

64

Barn owl

1

Screech owl

2

Horned owl

4

Barred owl

4

Short-eared owl

1

Whippoorwill

3

Ruby-throated hummingbird

2

Belted kingfisher

86

Yellow-shafted flicker

112

Pileated woodpecker

16

Red-bellied woodpecker

62

Redheaded woodpecker

1

Yellow-bellied sapsucker

23

Hairy woodpecker

4

Downy woodpecker

12

Red-cockaded woodpecker

5

Eastern phoebe

165

Tree swallow

1,400 +

Barn swallow

1

Purple martin

1

Blue jay

58

Scrub jay

62

American crow

8

Fish crow

420

Brown-headed nuthatch

22

House wren

71

Carolina wren

18

Long-billed marsh wren

64

Short-billed marsh wren

37

Mockingbird

112

Catbird

109

Brown thrasher

9

American robin

5,480 +

Hermit thrush

8

Eastern bluebird

114

Blue-gray gnatcatcher

54

Ruby-crowned kinglet

60

Water pipit

12

Cedar waxwing

49

Loggerhead shrike

62

Common starling

100 +

White-eyed vireo

11

Solitary vireo

7

Black-and-white warbler

5

Orange-crowned warbler

42

Parula warbler

2

Myrtle warbler

3,680 +

Yellow-throated warbler

9

Pine warbler

82

Prairie warbler

3

Palm warbler

712

Ovenbird

1

Northern water thrush

2

Common yellowthroat

144

House sparrow

212

Eastern meadowlark

68

Red-winged blackbird

1,200 +

Rusty blackbird

40

Boat-tailed grackle

339

Purple grackle

284

Brown-headed cowbird

54

Cardinal

128

Painted bunting

18

Purple finch

5

Pine siskin

1

American goldfinch

226

Eastern towhee

82

Savannah sparrow

224

Grasshopper sparrow

2

Henslow's sparrow

1

Sharp-tailed sparrow

5

Dusky seaside sparrow

7

Vesper sparrow

7

Lark sparrow

1

Pinewoods sparrow

13

Chipping sparrow

164

Clay-colored sparrow

1

Field sparrow

7

White-throated sparrow

11

Lincoln's sparrow

1

Swamp sparrow

146

Song sparrow

16

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.

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