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Annual Audubon Society holiday count Saturday

Mary Ann Thomas
| Friday, Dec. 28, 2001

Bird is the word Saturday as about 130 hardy volunteers take part in the Audubon Society annual bird count in the Pittsburgh region.

Wind, nor rain, nor snow will stop these intrepid birders from taking a census of the birds, a tradition for 102 years.

"It's a duty of love," said Betsey Owens, 65, of Fox Chapel. She will lead birders in Fox Chapel to count the cardinals, nuthatches and anything else on wing.

Another birder not daunted by plummeting temperatures, Paul Hess, 61, of Harrison, said: "The cold doesn't bother some of us. I'd rather be here walking in 20-degree weather than the Gulf Coast with 80-degree weather and mosquitoes around me."

Hess has been participating in and leading birds counts for 30 years.

The Christmas bird count is the largest volunteer effort for a nature survey in the United States, according to the Audubon Society.

"It's an opportunity to make a contribution to science," Hess said.

Last year, the Pittsburgh-area bird count netted 16,274 individual birds and 66 species.

Here in the Alle-Kiski Valley, birders will pay special attention to the Allegheny River where bald eagles are known to cruise.

"Generally, you'll find the eagles along the river north of Freeport," said Jim Valimont of Harmar and bird count director for the Pittsburgh area.

But an eagle can turn up anywhere along the Allegheny, Valimont said. Just recently, one was spotted near the New Kensington bridge, he said.

Besides sighting dramatic birds such as the bald eagle, the bird census is about counting the cardinals, chickadees - the regular birds.

For example, the most common bird in the Pittsburgh area during the bird count is the European starling, with 2,561 individuals counted last year.

"The count is important because it gives you some idea of what's happening to the population of birds and their habitats," Valimont said.

For example, the Christmas count has documented dwindling numbers of sparrows.

The decline is attributed to loss of field habitat - due to suburban sprawl - and lack of small trees and shrubs munched away by the overpopulation of deer.

The Christmas bird count was born out of protest.

New York ornithologist Frank Chapman wanted to counter the slaughter of birds in an annual holiday event in which teams of hunters competed for how many birds they could shoot.

Chapman organized 27 friends in 25 locations to count the birds.

More than a century later, 50,000 observers from all 50 states, every Canadian province, Central and South America, the Caribbean and several Pacific Islands participate.

Last year almost 2,000 local counts were held in the Western Hemisphere.

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