The story of the 115-year-old P.E.I. bird count and the man who started it all
As Christmas fast approaches, ‘tis the season once again for family, friends, food, festivities…and feathers – yes, feathers. If ornithology is your thing, the holidays have also become a time to put your observation skills to use and count birds.
It’s called the Christmas Bird Count, or Christmas Bird Census, and it has been happening for the past 115 years. Each year, an increasing number of people (“observers”) across the Americas have volunteered their time and enthusiasm throughout December and into January to take stock of bird populations and distribution spanning a vast geographical range. The origins of the census lie in an older holiday tradition known as the ‘Side Hunt,’ where a group of people would get together, choose sides, take their firearms into the great outdoors, and shoot anything with feathers or fur. The side with the greatest tally was declared victorious.
You can see how what likely began as a necessary survival measure eventually became a bit of a trigger-happy free-for-all Christmas tradition. By the time the twentieth century rolled around, however, some people began to have misgivings about the Side Hunt, rooted in the concern about noticeable declines in various bird populations. One such individual was the noted American ornithologist Frank M. Chapman. An officer of the Audubon Society, he put forward what, at the time, must have seemed something of a radical idea: rather than shooting as many birds as humanly possible, why not count them instead? And so, on Christmas Day 1900, Chapman and a handful of like-minded birders initiated bird counts from coast-to-coast across North America (mainly in the US). Forsaking the warmth of the hearth, they ventured into nature and established a tradition that continues to this day.
Now, a common stereotype about us Islanders is that we’re behind the times, “backwards” if you will. That may be true in some instances; however, in others we do have the ability to rise above the trope. While Christmas bird counting has only been held on an annual basis on the Island in more recent memory, the tradition as it exists here actually dates back to 1902 when one Islander took it upon himself to take the province’s first such census, and one of the earliest in Canada. Introducing educator-meets-naturalist, John MacSwain.
Born in April 1837 to Hector and Anne (nee Campbell), MacSwain made a career in education as a teacher, a principal, and in later years as a college instructor. He also did a stint as a school inspector for Kings County, in which capacity he was serving at the time of his marriage to Valeria Walker in November 1875. They went on to have at least seven children.
In his spare time – and it’s hard to believe he had much of it – MacSwain was big into natural history. Alongside such luminaries as David Laird, Lawrence Watson, Donald Montgomery, and Francis Bain, he was instrumental in forming the Island’s first such society in 1889.
Although it didn’t have a long shelf life, MacSwain would play a leading role in its reorganization ten years later in 1899 when it became the Natural History and Antiquarian Society of Prince Edward Island.
Like his colleagues, MacSwain’s interests within the field of natural history covered a wide range; however, he had an especially soft spot for birds, something he shared with Francis Bain. The pair stood at the forefront of early avifauna research on the Island, and contributed important literature on the subject. Bain’s Birds of Prince Edward Island (1891) is the work that has stood the test of time; however, MacSwain produced an equally significant catalogue of the Island’s avian residents in 1908.
It was likely his interest in birds that led MacSwain to develop a relationship with the Audubon Society, which would in turn have brought him into contact with the likes of Frank Chapman – and the concept of a bird census. It must have struck a chord in him and he decided to buy into the idea.
On Christmas Day 1902, amid not a single shred of fanfare, MacSwain conducted his census. At that time, about 30 different avian species were willing to brave the winter here. So how many sightings did MacSwain make on that history-making outing? These are the notes he compiled:
Charlottetown, PEI – Time, 3 hours. Fine; wind, East, light; Temp., 28°. Not a single bird seen. The early and severe winter weather of the beginning of December seems to have driven all the birds to the South. – John MacSwain
Not a single bird seen.
As MacSwain noted, the early part of December 1902 was indeed particularly miserable, and likely a major factor. Of course, unlike the Side Hunt, the count was not meant to be a competition – it was all in the name of science. That said, it must have been at least a little disheartening for MacSwain. But results, even negative, are still results at the end of the day. He dutifully forwarded his findings on to the Audubon Society, which were published in a 1903 issue of its print organ, Bird-Lore (now the Audubon magazine).
The Island’s first Christmas bird count was such an understated affair that it’s difficult to determine whether or not the idea took hold, or even if MacSwain kept at it until his unexpected passing in December 1908, aged 71. Lamenting his death, Island newspaper The Guardian, under the headline “Famous Man Passes Away”, waxed poetic that his was “a name which will go down to posterity…”
It did not.
Today, you would be hard pressed to find many people who could tell you a great deal about John MacSwain. Even fewer could name him as the father of Christmas bird counting on the Island. And although I cannot say for certain, I derive great pleasure from the belief that a dejected MacSwain returned home that day in 1902 to the sight of at least one bird… on his table.