Sometime between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, some 55,000 volunteers will fan out across much of North America and beyond to participate in an annual winter tradition, the Christmas bird count.
The 2005 edition is the 106th consecutive ''count,'' which actually is a compilation of hundreds of local counts. Overseen by the National Audubon Society, volunteers aim to identify, tally, and record all the birds seen on a given day in a predetermined area. The end result will be an index of the status and distribution of bird species in the northern half of the Western Hemisphere.
The first Christmas count took place on Christmas Day in 1900, when 27 conservationists in 25 locales, in effect, changed the course of ornithology.
The small group, led by scientist-writer Frank Chapman, proposed the count as an alternative to what then was known as a "side hunt,'' a Christmas Day activity in which teams competed to see which could shoot the most birds and small mammals.
At the turn of the 20th century, bird populations were depleted because of unregulated hunting and overharvest of birds for plumage for the fashion industry. Such practices were a sign of the times.
In fact in the 19th century even the iconic John James Audubon obtained specimens for study and his famous artwork by shooting them, to have them at hand for detail. It was considered a standard, acceptable practice in an era before photography.
In any case, the Christmas bird count grew to become what some individuals regard as the world's most significant citizen-based conservation effort.
In the inaugural event in 1900, professor Lynds Jones, of Oberlin, Ohio, was one of the counters, giving Ohio a place in birding history. He counted 14 species, including a red-shouldered hawk, 40 American tree sparrows, 14 purple finches, and a lone northern cardinal.
Today more than 60 counts are conducted in Ohio with the help of more than 1,500 volunteers. These birders, of all skill levels, tally tens of thousands of birds - usually including nearly 20,000 cardinals. Both the number of count volunteers, and cardinals, increase annually.
The 106th count is the largest yet in geographical terms. Participants come from all 50 states, every Canadian province, parts of Central America and South America, Bermuda, the West Indies, and some Pacific islands.
Overall the count is considered vital in monitoring the status of resident and migratory birds. The result is said to be a crucial part of the federal government's natural history monitoring data base.
"Having fun while birding can identify important results that help shape the direction of bird conservation,'' said Geoff Le-
Baron, Audubon's count director. "Audubon and our partners at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and Boreal Species Initiative are analyzing data from the overall CBC data base, and using the results they find to develop Audubon's 'State of the Birds' report. These important results will be reflected in 2006 in our 'State of the Birds' waterbird report, and inform the Audubon WatchList, which is used to prioritize Audubon's bird conservation activities.''
The count results from 1900 to the present are available at Audubon's Web site, www.audubon.org/bird/cbc. Included in those results is the last report of the currently sought ivory-billed woodpecker in the CBC database - two birds that were confirmed in the "Singer Tract'' in Louisiana during the 38th count in 1937. Other sightings were reported in the 1930s. New reports of the species, once thought extinct, were confirmed earlier this year in a swamp forest in Arkansas.
To get involved in a count, download a copy of the Audubon Ohio Christmas Bird Count directory at www.audubonohio.org/2005ChristmasBirdCount.html.
Several counts are held around northwest Ohio, led by the Toledo Count, which is set for Dec. 18. The Toledo event has been conducted by the Toledo Naturalists' Association since 1927. This count typically turns up 70 to 90 species. For details visit the TNA Web site, www.toledonaturalist.org or call the TNA rare-bird hotline, 419-877-9640.
Other counts include the Grand Rapids-Waterville count, set for Dec. 31, and the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge count on Jan. 1. See the TNA references for details.