The 1st Christmas Bird Count in Nova Scotia

Lemaire field binoculars from the early Twentieth Century. Lemaire was best known for its opera glasses.

A Christmas tradition in some areas of the United States at the end of the Nineteenth Century was the “Side Hunt.” Hunters would choose sides, and each team would shoot as many birds as they could find in a day and put them in a pile. The team with the largest pile won. On December 25, 1900, naturalists in North America, in an effort to conserve bird populations, held the first Christmas Bird Count in which people counted rather than shot every bird they could find. There were two Christmas Bird Counts in Canada that year, one at Scotch Lake, New Brunswick, and the other in Toronto, Ontario.

The first Christmas Bird Count in Nova Scotia was held 13 years later in Yarmouth by Harrison F. Lewis and E. Chesley Allen. On December 23, 2013, they counted 103 birds of 12 species. Harrison Lewis was 20 years old and from Long Island, New York. He was probably attending Acadia University where he graduated in 1917. Chesley Allen was a native of Arcadia in Yarmouth County and 31 years old. He was a teacher in the town of Yarmouth.

Of the birds they counted that day, what is perhaps the most interesting are the birds that they did not see. Not a single gull or starling was counted. Today, Herring Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls, and the European Starling are not only common but superabundant in the Town of Yarmouth. The absence of starlings on that first count is easy to explain. The European Starling was first successfully introduced to North American in Central Park, New York City, in 1890. According to the late Robie Tufts in his book, The Birds of Nova Scotia, the first starling to be seen in Nova Scotia was not until 1915.

The absence of gulls is harder to explain. Robie Tufts wrote that in 1906, the Herring Gull was common except in winter when it was rare. In an 18-page pamphlet entitled Annotated List of Birds of Yarmouth and Vicinity, Southwestern Nova Scotia published in 1915, Chesley Allen wrote that the Great Black-backed Gull was “irregular” along our coasts in winter. He goes on to say that a large and increasing breeding colony of 1,000 birds of this species was located at Lake George. Here the Great Black-backed Gulls outnumbered the Herring Gulls by 10 to 1. Nonetheless, the overall number of gulls was much less in 1913, for as Robie Tufts wrote, the gulls, as well as other bird species, were heavily exploited by commercial interests for their feathers. It was only in 1918 with the passage of the international Migratory Bird Treaty Act that such activities became illegal.

Reading Chesley Allen’s pamphlet provides interesting insights about the changes in bird populations in Southwest Nova Scotia since the early Twentieth Century. Some bird species have dramatically increased. Allen reported having seen only 5 Mourning Doves in 17 years. Today they are commonly encountered at bird feeders.

Other species have precipitously declined. The one I found most stark was the change in blackbird populations. The Rusty Blackbird today is listed in the federal Species at Risk Act as of “Special Concern” and “Endangered” in the Nova Scotia Endangered Species Act. Chesley Allen listed the Rusty Blackbird as a “rather common summer resident.” In contrast, he had only two records of the Red-winged Blackbird and four records of the Common Grackle. Both blackbirds are common today.

Chesley Allen listed the Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, and Tree Swallow among the most abundant birds in Southwest Nova Scotia. All these species are of conservation concern to varying degrees in the present day.

The Yarmouth Christmas Bird Count was repeated in 1914 and 1915, presumably by Chesley Allen and Harrison Lewis. Harrison Lewis went on to become the first chief of the Canadian Wildlife Service in 1947. The Harrison Lewis Coastal Discovery Centre in East Port L’Hebert in Queen County is named in his honor. Chesley Allen left Yarmouth in 1917 to become the supervisor of schools in Colchester County but in 1919 went to work at the Halifax School for the Blind where he became Superintendent in 1923.

The next Christmas Bird Count in Yarmouth wasn’t until 1973 when 28 participants counted 10,947 birds of 69 species.

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