Fifty years and counting

Phil Johnson is President of the Altacal Audubon Society

The local Audubon Society chapter (Altacal Audubon) is celebrating 50 years of conducting the Annual Chico Christmas Bird Count Survey this month on Dec 18. The Christmas Bird Counts are a nationwide tradition that started more than 100 years ago in protest against the former tradition of country folk indiscriminately shooting everything they saw on Christmas Day. Our mission is to count every bird that we see, tally up the totals at the end of the day, and enter them into the log book. Small groups are assigned an area within a 15-mile diameter circle around Chico in which to scour the landscape and find as many birds as possible. The early bearers of this tradition, such as noted bird artists Janet Turner and Paul Feldhaus, CSUC ornithologist Tom Rodgers, and activist Lynn Thomas, set this precedent of concern for the birdlife in our community.

So what have we seen in the last 50 years? On average, we observe 120 species of birds on “count day.” It is hard to gauge populations of many birds accurately with this type of survey, but the data shows an increase in raptors such as Bald Eagle, Osprey, White-tailed Kite (all recovering victims of the DDT era). Geese numbers are down within the count circle due to displaced habitat. Ferruginous Hawks, Burrowing Owls and an occasional Bald Eagle could always be found along Bruce Road, but recent developments will push these birds out forever.

The most notable aspect of our 50-year retrospective is the steady loss of habitat within the Chico area. In the 1950s, Chico’s east side was mostly sheep- and cattle-grazing lands with tilled fields of winter wheat. Vernal pool wetlands were abundant. The foothills were completely open lands. All of these habitats are bird friendly. As decades have passed, the open spaces have slowly filled in with shopping malls, housing tracts, big-box retailers, and freeways. To the west, some ag lands that were previously in rice and winter wheat have been converted to orchards, a trend that is unfavorable to geese, ducks and other wetland birds. To the north, more vernal pools and grazing lands have become housing and commercial tracts. On the south side, some of Butte Creek’s Valley Oak woodlands have been cleared, lot by lot, to make room for development. Preservation efforts along the Sacramento river have assured permanent homes for many species.

Through all of the changes in the last 50 years, Chicoans are still graced with a diversity of bird life. Just how long some of our local birds can hold on to the margins of remaining habitat depends on how strongly we fight to defend these last spaces. We at Audubon welcome you to help us carry on our bird-counting tradition. The birds are counting on it most of all.