Christmas Bird Counts: Is it about the birds, or is it about the food?

What is it that makes Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) so special? Many birders would rank CBC participation among the highlights, if not the highlight, of their holiday season. For some, it is the one time all year when they start birding (owling) before dawn. Others find comfort and joy in returning to a favored network of patches they have been covering for years. Query these folks about their area and they can usually tell you which slough will hold the group of Wood Ducks, or direct you to the bramble patch that will yield the best sparrow flock. They’ll bend your ear with tales of the Black-and-White Warbler on the 1984 count, or the Snowy Owl back in ’78. Counts that enjoy a strong core of veteran team leaders tend to avoid those “bad miss” species — known to be in the count circle, but not found on count day–that plague those counts with a less savvy observer base.

Camaraderie is another important element to CBC enjoyment and success. During my teens and early twenties I was a regular participant on the Tillamook Bay CBC along the Oregon coast. Part of the appeal of this count was hanging out in the motel the night before the count as compiler Bill Thackaberry and other veteran birders passed around a bottle of whiskey and gave the upstarts in the room a ration of good-natured grief. When the sun rose the next morning and we fanned out from The Big Cheese Restaurant (yes, that was the name of the place), it was “game on” as the youngsters vowed to outwork the old boys in an effort to find the count’s best rarities… and we often did. When teams compete, the species total climbs.

Clearly, crossing paths with old friends and birding familiar turf are part of the attraction and tradition of CBCs. However, when CBC discussions turn serious, this is what you are more likely to hear: “Do you know who made that enchilada casserole? It’s awesome.” “You better get over there and get some of Anne Heyerly’s rum cake (see recipe below), there’s only a few pieces left.” “Were there any lemon bars still on the dessert table?” When it comes to evaluating CBCs, those with potluck post-count dinners — ideally hosted in someone’s home — rate highest.

I spent my formative years and did my first Christmas counts in northern Indiana. When you are well under five feet tall and weigh less than 70 pounds, winter birding in the Midwest is best remembered by (a) how you nearly froze to death and (b) what you were eating when you commenced the thawing out process at day’s end. A good day list for one party was usually well south of 35 species, and these counts often struggled to turn up 50 species total. Yet, no matter how mundane the birding might have been, to this day I would happily drive cross-country in a snow storm to spend a day counting Tufted Titmice, Downy Woodpeckers, and American Tree Sparrows if my reward was another one of Gwen Smith’s “Gookie Bars” or a cup of Dorothy Buck’s homemade eggnog. We’re talking nirvana for an eight-year-old.

Our family joined the South Audubon Society in 1963 and remained heavily involved with that chapter until we moved west in 1970. Seemingly every chapter function involved a potluck meal, causing some members to refer to our group as “the South Bend Eatabon Society.” The aforementioned Gwen Smith — who was the chapter’s treasurer — would invariably show up with a Tupperware container full of various layered sheet cookies (Gookie Bars) as her “dish to pass.” For the South Bend CBC, Gwen would break out the heavy artillery and bring along a large assortment of her finest confections.

In addition to the South Bend CBC, our family always made the one-hour drive to Hamlet, Indiana to help out with the Southeastern LaPorte count. Dorothy Buck (“DB” as she was known to her friends) was the compiler of this count. She was a long-time board member of the Indiana Audubon Society, where she became well-acquainted with several veteran members from our chapter. Her count circle was nothing special, mostly corn and soybean fields, a few scattered woodlots, mile upon mile of fenceline and telephone wires, and one creek (usually frozen over) that meandered through the area. As I recall, there were no other local birders who joined the count. It was DB, her husband John, and a few families from South Bend. The Southeastern LaPorte CBC was dependable for one thing… c-c-cold!

I don’t remember anything about the birds, but memories of the eggnog are indelible. It was nectar of the gods. The Buck home seemed tiny even to a little kid. There was a cozy little living room that wrapped around into a modest dining area then continued into a closet-sized kitchen. I’m guessing the whole place might have been 800 square feet. How we shoehorned 15-20 counters into their garage-sized abode is hard to fathom. The sacred nog was always in a voluminous punch bowl on a table in the dining area. Aside from the raw eggs, I can’t provide the list of other ingredients, which were shared about as often as Colonel Sanders’ secret blend of eleven herbs and spices. Thankfully, there was always more than enough to go around, so my elders did not frown on my repeated visits to the punch bowl.

After moving to Oregon in 1970, my parents routinely hosted post-count potlucks for the Portland CBC. In later years my mom came up with a simple lentil soup recipe that she referred to as “Bird Count Soup” (see the recipe below). It has been my experience that almost any birder will brave rain, snow, ice, wind, and even occasional sunshine to count birds if there is a home cooked meal and house full of rosy-faced compatriots to greet them at the end of the day. “If you cook, we will bird… and eat!”

Judie Hansen’s Bird Count Soup Recipe — serves 50

3 medium onion, chopped
6 large carrots, chopped
3 stalks of celery, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
3 large cans of tomato juice
2 cloves of garlic, minced
3 pounds of lentils
2 tablespoons of dried basil
1 quart water
salt and pepper to taste

Put all ingredients in a large soup pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook for three hours. If necessary, due to swelled lentils, add more water and divide into two pots. Serve sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.

Anne Heyerly’s Rum Cake Recipe — there’s never enough!

Rum Cake:
1 C chopped pecans
1 18.5oz cake mix — I use butter pecan
1 3.75oz Jell-O Instant Pudding mix (I use butterscotch or pistachio)
4 eggs
¼ C cold water
1/3 C veg. oil
½ C Dark Rum (Meyers)
1/3 C sour cream

Grease & flour a 10 inch tube or a 13x9 pan. Put nuts in bottom of Tube pan or sprinkle on top of batter if using 13x9. Mix all ingredients together. Bake about 1 hour. Cool. Prick top of cake with large fork. Drizzle glaze evenly over cake allowing glaze to soak in. Wrap cake tightly in saran wrap and stick under seat of car so you must smell it all day while counting birds.

¼ pound butter (NOT margarine)
¼ C water
1 C granulated sugar
½ C dark Rum

Melt butter in non-stick saucepan, stir in water and sugar and boil 5 minutes. Allow to cool to just warm then add rum (makes it stronger!) Do not add rum until it has cooled a bit. Pour over slightly warm cake.


CBCs have always been part of my “best birding” memories, too.

To recipe list, add Sheran Wright’s salads: a Class B Felony whether at Malheur or a CBC meeting.


for a few more calories (we need them while birding in freezing temps!) substitute egg nog for the water and add an extra 1/4 cup of nuts to the batter!!! (New twist for the 2009-10 CBC season!)


That’s a mold-breaker. Great thinikng!


I have never tasted the rum cake! I need to make a better effort next year! :)

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