The Side Hunt and the Christmas Bird Count

Dec 24, 2018

Do you have a special holiday tradition that includes the outdoors?

The Masked Biologist shares the history of the side hunt, and the Christmas Bird Count, in this week’s Wildlife Matters.

Every family has Christmas or holiday traditions of some kind. Most traditions form around religious activities, or maybe home decorations, maybe special family get togethers or something relating to food. I can tell you my own family has traditions in every one of those areas. Natural resource activities have not been at the heart of any of our traditions—possibly because we are always on the road under pressure to visit family. However, there are a couple of very interesting holiday traditions that incorporate wildlife and the outdoors.

The side hunt was a holiday tradition in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A group of men would come together and choose sides, then head afield and hunt for whatever wild game they could find. Whichever side harvested the most wildlife was the winner. Today, this kind of competition might seem unnecessary or even unsportsmanlike. At that time though, wild game was an important additional dietary staple. People had begun to have icebox refrigeration as an option, but freezers would not become common household appliances until the 1940s. People would have to collect the meat and prepare it before it spoiled, often by drying or canning it. The cold winter temperatures would extend the meat preservation options, allowing hunters to harvest wildlife, prepare it, and store it without spoiling. Hunters would clearly overharvest wildlife during this time, however.

Wildlife conservation had not really been developed as a science in the late 1800s. You have probably seen old black and white photos of several men standing next to an entire barn wall covered with rabbits, grouse, fox, or other wildlife. When I worked in southwest Minnesota, the “old timers” at the local coffee shop would tell childhood stories of being runners for huge jackrabbit drives. They would slowly close a circle around a grassy meadow, pushing jackrabbits to the center, where hunters would eventually harvest every last one. I have heard or read similar stories about many different kinds of animals, from squirrels to wolves.

In the early 1900s, we as a society were becoming aware of what impacts we were having on wildlife. There were giants in early natural resource conservation that were bringing resource concerns and natural history to light, like John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and Aldo Leopold. We were transitioning from an era of Manifest Destiny and exploitation to an era of conservation, or wise use, of natural resources. These were the days of formation for the Audubon society, named after famed naturalist and artist John Audubon. One particular ornithologist, or bird scientist, named Frank Chapman came up with an idea for a conservationist alternative for the Christmas side hunt. In 1900, he and several other bird enthusiasts went out on Christmas day and counted how many birds of every species they could find and recorded them. This was the creation of the Christmas Bird Count. The idea was well received, and now over 100 years later, thousands of volunteers participate across the US, Canada, and other countries. Organized by the Audubon Society, the CBC is the longest running citizen science survey in the world. Volunteers of every skill level observe and record bird numbers and species in their area, and submit the information to scientists who compile the information coming in from across the country. If interested in learning more, you can find more information on the Audobon Society website: https://www.audubon.org/

Traditions start for many reasons, but normally they endure because of how they make people feel. Traditions tie us to our past, to our forefathers and ancestors anchored in a point and time of importance to us. They can be as complicated as preparing a special meal, dish, or baked good from a family recipe, or decorating with special family heirlooms. They can be as simple as watching a sporting event or playing a card game. Whatever your traditions may be, make sure to set aside time for family and for enjoying those things that bring you contentment and joy this holiday season.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.