Sunday, July 31, 2011

Count not to kill, but to preserve

December - FOGSL’s bird count month: 

Archeological evidence shows that humans have been in the habit of counting for at least 50,000 years or more. This has been primarily to keep track of their livestock and economic data of farm produce, debts etc.

In modern times counting is a priority in almost all sciences and is the basis for the statistical sciences.

Species counts are a primary source of data in the science of Conservation Biology.

And studying birds for conservation purposes require regular counts as they seem to be found in different locations at different times.

Change in climate brings about inborn instincts for migration in the animal kingdom.

And bird species the “class aves” in the animal kingdom are the largest single form to migrate regularly. Furthermore birds are now considered as an ideal indicator species to predict macro to micro environmental changes that we humans tend to realize quite late.

A common example would be the increase in the raven (crow) population with relation to garbage. No garbage no crows? The disappearance and return of common birds in the European climates have developed various cultures and myths in these societies.

Two Little Black Birds and the mythical predictions on the number of magpies seen go as;

One for sorrow
Two for joy
Three for a wedding
Four for a birth
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven of a secret not to be told
Eight for heaven
Nine for hell
And ten for the devil’s own self.

These and many more fables related to birds have passed on to generations as means of counting practice to children.

The Christmas Bird Count famous in the USA is the forerunner in the recent history of counting birds.

The North Americans up to about the beginning of the 19th century participated in a tradition called a Christmas “side hunt”.

The hunt was to account for how many birds you could kill. The killings had no reason and did not matter if the bird were beneficial, non-beneficial, beautiful or rare.

At the turn of the 19th century the US ornithologist Frank Chapman; later a member of the Audubon Society proposed counting birds on Christmas rather than killing them. From there on the Christmas Bird Count was to stay with the Audubon Society as an annual event which later became an immense contributor the study of the American birds.

Ornithology, the scientific study of birds is highly dependent on counts and censuses. This is by no means an easy task as birds are found almost in all environments and their ability to move by flying does not restrict them from geographical, political and manmade barriers.

Bird populations are very dynamic and fluctuate constantly. No single scientist or a study team could document this complex distribution and movement of so many species in a short time. Thus knowing where the birds are present will make the scientist and the bird enthusiast learn a lot about them.

To overcome this complex situation the scientists studying birds the world over depends very much on the community. Your help is needed to document the representation of birds from your community, be it just five birds in your back yard to over 75 species that you may see on a trip to a National Park.

As the Audubon in the USA, Sri Lanka too has the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) in the University of Colombo, a scientific body and the affiliate to the Bird Life International working towards the protection and the well being of the birds in Sri Lanka.

Founded in the year 1976 the FOGSL has come a long way in the conservation of birds in Sri Lanka and has been a party to world bird counts in the country, and in identifying important bird areas in the country. FOGSL from the year 2005 has been conducting its own Bird Count Month in the month of December. The month of December has significance to Sri Lanka as being the mid month of the bird migratory period from September to April. It is thought that the migrants are distributed throughout the country by December and thus the best time to count.

Members, non members and volunteers who have a knack for birds are hereby requested to look out and record the birds that you see during the month of December and list them with dates and place names which would then be fed into a world data base maintained in the University.

Your small contribution today will be of immense value tomorrow in planning the future. Take time to record the birds while on your trips out of Colombo during the festive season; for we never had a crow on the Horton Plains 25 years ago where now are a plenty. The only reason is that you did not bring back the garbage you took up there. The house sparrow that nested in the old earthen pot is no more with the amount of chemical used in our rice paddy fields. It was too late when we found out. So help save the surviving species. Sri Lanka is still rich in its bird life and let us keep it same for the generations to come.

Let us keep the bird an environmental indicator? Please send your records in the preferred language to the “Compiler December Bird Count”, Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka, Department of Zoology, University of Colombo, Colombo 3.

Those who have access to the internet could key in your records at and be regular contributors to a worthy cause. 

Published in the Sunday Observer Plus 2008 - 11 - 30

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