History of the Wolfville Christmas Bird Count

Nova Scotia Christmas Bird Counts:

When Did They Start?

by Merritt Gibson

I just read the field notes published by another naturalists society that include an article on Christmas bird counts (CBCs). The article states that this year is a special anniversary, “for it marks 50 years of Christmas bird counts in Nova Scotia” and a celebration is planned. Let’s have a celebration, but let’s get it right and mark the real start some 81 years ago. Nova Scotia has one of the earliest counts in North America.

The claim that Christmas bird counts started in Nova Scotia about 1953 has received much publicity during the past few years. I’ve even heard the announcement at BNS meetings. The truth is that Wolfville, with ancestors of the Blomidon Naturalists Society, held CBCs for decades before 1953.

I cannot document when they started, but Robie Tufts said he conducted the first one in 1921. I have checked with other birders who grew up under Robie’s influence, and they recall a similar date.

I can document the CBCs held through the 1930s, for I have copies of many of them. Robie published some 1930 CBCs in the Ottawa Field Naturalist, now the Canadian Field Naturalist, and you can check them at the Acadia library, as I did.

There was no CBC in 1940 (perhaps it was 1941?). John Erskine organized them at the time and none was held that year because, I believe, he was on sabbatical. Otherwise, CBCs were held under John Erskine’s leadership each year during the I 940s and into the 1950s. The problem year was 1952, for which we have no record. That means either that a count was not held that year (which I doubt) or that we cannot find a record of it (which is true). It does not mean the CBCs started at that time.

One statement repeatedly heard, even at BNS, is that CBCs have been held in Nova Scotia continuously since 1953. Strictly, the statement is accurate because of the 1952 dilemma, but it is misleading and unfair to Robie Tufts, John Erskine, and the many who took part in earlier counts. Cutting Wolfville’s three-decades-long tail off the Nova Scotian flow chart is a tidy technique that gives a more symmetrical chart, but it has also given some people the incorrect impression of the start date. The person who collates the Nova Scotia counts makes a tremendous contribution to birders in the province. In starting the compilation, while knowing the Wolfville record, the collator needed (reasonably) a date when a number of counts were held, and the break at 1952 was a convenient one. No other message was intended.

I took part in Wolfville’s CBCs during the late l940s and early 1950s with an impressive list of future birders, scientists, and conservationi sts. Lloyd Duncanson was one; he later joined the staff of the Nova Scotia Museum. Sherman Bleakney was another, later becoming a biology professor at Acadia and a noted authority on the natural history and history of the Minas Basin and dykelands. Ralph Mosher became professor of education at Harvard University and an active conservationist. Tony Erskine took part; he became an ornithologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service and author of many articles on birds, including the Atlas of Breeding Birds of the Maritime Provinces. And David Erskine, later an authority in botany and geography, also participated. David researched and wrote the Flora of Prince Edward Island

In earlier years, the name that stands out is Mary Forbes, who lived on Linden Avenue and once took a young boy into her garden to show him an oriole’s nest. She died several years ago at the age of 102. The day before, with her daughter, she kept a list of the birds at her feeder, and her name is listed on Wolfville’s CBC for that year. She took part in CBCs for some 60 years, and that must be a record — one that should be recognized!

Wolfville produced several internationally recognized ornithologists, and participation in the annual CBC was likely part of their background. Austin Rand led expeditions through the South Pacific islands and later became curator of the Chicago Museum of Natural History. Earl Godfrey, who became chief of zoology at the National Museum of Canada, wrote Birds of Canada. Stephen Gould led scientific trips through Newfoundland and Labrador and wrote, for that time, the definitive work on Wilson Snipe.

Ron Smith also led trips through the South Pacific (and was naturalist on the eight-month honeymoon cruise of George Vanderbilt and his bride on the yacht Cressida). He became curator of the museum at Queen’s University and continued to band birds as he did while he was growing up in Wolfville with Robie Tufts. One bird that he banded at Queens was a chimney swift. That band was one of several later recovered in the Amazon and showed for the first time where Chimney Swifts went in winter.

These birders all grew up in Wolfville; it is an impressive list for a small community. They are all part of the heritage of the Blomidon Naturalists Society and, indeed, of all Nova Scotian birders. Let’s recognize their achievements and keep them as a part of our history, and lets enjoy a celebration of the first CBC in Nova Scotia – perhaps 81 years ago.

From the Blomidon Naturalists Society Newsletter
Winter 2001, pp8-10