San Francisco's annual Christmas Bird Count begins Thursday

(Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner)

They have long traded rifles for cameras and pencils, but the folks who will scour The City for birds this week are no less enthusiastic about their pursuits.

Thursday marks the Christmas Bird Count, an annual event that started locally in 1983. More than 100 volunteers will break off into teams to count and identify as many species as possible in a 15-mile radius from the Golden Gate Bridge to San Bruno.

Spearheaded by ornithologist Frank Chapman, the bird count was born on Christmas Day in 1900. At the time, conservation was in its infancy, but there was concern about declining bird populations, according to the National Audubon Society. One Christmas tradition called the Side Hunt involved gun-toting bird slayers hoping to amass the largest pile of feathers. Chapman proposed counting and appreciating these creatures instead.

“It offset the idea of shooting everything you can see in a day,” said Dan Murphy, who co-started the local count.

Last year in San Francisco, 123 observers counted 176 species and 60,704 individual birds. Those numbers are right in line with yearly averages, Murphy said.

In total, there are more than 2,100 counts taken from Guam to Labrador, Canada, and from Alaska to Chile between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, according to the Golden Gate Audubon Society. The information mined each year is compiled into a database that, Murphy said, can help shed light on why certain populations change, among other things. That data is invaluable, said Mike Lynes, executive director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society.

“We can keep an eye on that,” Lynes said of population shifts. “If we’re losing those species, we can ask the question of why and hopefully change that. The counts can inform our local advocacy. There’s no data set like it.”

Both Lynes and Murphy said that since San Francisco’s count began, one of the most troublesome losses has been in the quail population, which is virtually nonexistent in The City now.

“One factor has been urbanization,” Murphy said, pointing to cats and off-leash dogs as culprits in the decline.

But while urbanization hurts some species, it actually boosts others. Ravens and crows have increased their numbers locally in the past few decades. Being scavengers, population centers offer ample food sources for these species, Murphy said.

Yet despite this contradiction, The City remains a terrific wintering zone for feathered vertebrates.

“Our counts are some of the highest in the country,” Murphy said.

Registration to participate in Thursday’s event is now closed.

mdenike@sfexaminer.com

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