The Christmas Bird Count of 1912 in Central Park

Yes, that is right — 1912. But first some comments on the most recent one.

The 2012 Christmas Bird Count (113th in the series) took place this morning in Central Park. It should have at least a couple birds not observed in recent years, namely Common Redpoll and White-winged Crossbill. I noted the former in the previous post; the latter appeared again on Friday the 14th in the same place that the Redpolls were seen, the sweetgum tree just south of Humming Tombstone. Another possibility is Evening Grosbeak, which had not been observed in Central Park since its initial appearance in early November until yesterday, Saturday the 15th, when two were seen in the hemlocks of Shakespeare Garden.

So I began wondering: what did birders of 100 years ago see in Central Park in December? I was surprised to learn that they did not see very much!

The Audubon Society maintains a site that allows you to search the historical records of Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) from all over the United States. The results from December 25, 1912 in Central Park are as follows:

  1. Northern Bobwhite 12
  2. Great Blue Heron 1
  3. Red-tailed Hawk 1
  4. Merlin 1
  5. American Kestrel 1
  6. Herring Gull 22
  7. Downy Woodpecker 3
  8. Crow, sp. 3
  9. Black-capped Chickadee 2
  10. White-breasted Nuthatch 3
  11. European Starling 339
  12. American Tree Sparrow 12
  13. Field Sparrow 1
  14. Song Sparrow 24
  15. White-throated Sparrow 17
  16. Dark-eyed Junco 39
  17. Northern Cardinal 1
  18. Eastern Meadowlark 1

Why so few birds? In the early years of the Central Park CBC there were very few birders. In fact the first CBC in 1900 was done entirely by a 13-year-old boy, Charles Rogers. No attempt was made to bird the entire park. Records say that only one person took part in the 1912 count. I have no idea how hard he or she tried to get a complete count.

Another difference was the weather: Central Park winters were a lot colder then, and there were fewer trees to provide food. There also were no feeders.

My source for the above explanation is the fine history of the Central Park CBC written by Sarah Elliott, who ran the count for twenty years.

Even though variety of species was low, the single birder of 1912 did see several birds that are very rarely or never seen today.

The Northern Bobwhite population has continued declining for decades with the disappearance of suitable habitat (forest and grasslands). The species is no longer regularly seen in Central Park, or anywhere else in New York City, though it still appears infrequently in parts of Long Island.

American Tree Sparrows still appear annually in Central Park in the fall, but they are very scarce. This year eBird had only three reports for the entire year.

The Eastern Meadowlark is rarer still, with only one record in Central Park in the last two years. Brooklyn parks get this bird in fall migration more frequently, though even there it is still considered a rare find.

— David Barrett