By Amy Zimmer
DNAinfo News Editor
CENTRAL PARK — For some New Yorkers, the holidays mean it's time to grab their binoculars.
Bird watchers have been flocking to Central Park for the annual Christmas Bird Count since 1900, when ornithologist and Audubon society member Frank Chapman asked birders across North America to use their eyes, rather than guns, to capture the winged wildlife.
Scientists like Chapman were concerned about dwindling bird populations and railed against the holiday tradition of the time known as the Christmas "side hunt" when people would shoot as many birds as they could.
"This was developed as an alternative to killing birds," said Sarah Aucoin, Director of the Urban Park Rangers, which is hosting Sunday's 111th Annual Central Park Christmas Bird Count with New York City Audubon. "There was a shift in natural history and what conservation meant."
It was an era when even the great conservationist, Teddy Roosevelt, hunted and stuffed birds as a hobby. And how do you think John James Audubon was able to paint birds with such fine details?
"John James Audubon shot the birds to paint them," said Susan Elbin, Director of Conservation for New York City Audubon. "This is what they did to get a better view."
The annual Christmas bird counts, which are collected from Canada to Mexico from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5, have become the largest and longest-running citizen science survey in the world.
“It is an incredible long-term data set because people go to the same place at the same time, year after year,” Elbin said. Researchers at the National Audubon Society have used the data to study how bird migration patterns are changing as the temperature does, with more birds staying north longer in the winter, she noted.
In Central Park, which is a birding hotspot yearround since it's along a migration route, participants have counted more than 6,000 birds of about 60 species each year during the last few years, Aucoin said. “The oasis of green in a concrete jungle — it's literary true,” she said. "It's an important resting spot."
New York City Audubon's executive director Glenn Phillips noted some interesting changes. Most significantly, the population of Common Grackles — blackbirds with iridescent bodies and long tails — has increased in Central Park over the past 40 years, while the species is declining elsewhere.
For scientists and public educators like Aucoin, the bird count is not only a valuable tool for data collection, but also in fostering a lifelong interest in the natural world.
“There’s something fascinating seeing two birds of the same species and learning to spot the differences in the individuals,” she said. “It’s how people get addicted to bird watching.”
The 111th Annual Central Park Christmas Bird Count is Sunday, Dec. 19, at 8:00 a.m. Bring binoculars and meet at the South Pump Station of the Reservoir (East 85th Street and Fifth Avenue). At 12:30 p.m., data tally and refreshments at the Arsenal Gallery (3rd floor of the Arsenal at East 64th Street and Fifth Avenue). For more information, contact NYC Audubon at (212) 691-7483 or ChrismasBirdCount@nycaudubon.org.