When birding was a national sport

Birdwatching enjoyed 15 minutes of fame when Sports Illustrated sent reporters across the country to cover the 1955 Christmas Bird Count

Not long ago, print magazines were a big deal. I can remember anticipating Sports Illustrated cover stories, wondering who might be on the next cover and what the story would say about them. These were constant topics of conversation among me and my co-workers at the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch in the late`90s. Before the web commoditized longer-form writing, print magazines were the most widely distributed and authoritative sources for insights aside from nightly highlight shows and possibly newspapers.

I suppose that’s why Sports Illustrated’s January 16, 1956, feature, “The Biggest Bird Watch,” always seemed like the stuff of legend. I’m not sure where I first read it, probably in a flashback issue of more recent vintage. But that the No. 1 sports periodical would feature birding alongside major sports like baseball, football and golf really stood out. And that a national community of renowned birders even existed. Thus stated the subheading to the piece:

MORE THAN 8,000 TOOK PART IN THIS YEAR’S CHRISTMAS BIRD COUNT. HERE IS A COMPREHENSIVE SUMMARY OF THE RECORD-BREAKING EVENT WITH PAINTINGS BY ROGER TORY PETERSON OF HIS CHOICEST BIRDS.

Of course, this article arrived in a time when Sports Illustrated also covered dog shows, deep sea fishing, rodeos and scuba diving. It was like the major sports weren’t as major back then, and that on some days a story about archery may receive the same notice as the NFL championship. The January 16 edition featured a spread on “The Bing Crosby Tournament” and golf at fabled Pebble Beach in California.

In looking back on it, what amazes me about the SI birding piece is how much things have changed—and how much things haven’t. SI dispatched writers across the country to follow birders on Christmas Bird Counts, including a big effort in Cocoa, Fla., led by Dr. Allan Cruickshank, once the official photographer for National Audubon Society. Cruickshank wasn’t afraid to bring in a few ringers, including the likes of Peterson, described as “the high priest of the bird-watching fraternity.” Indeed, Cruickshank’s crew was all male, aside from Farida Wiley of the American Museum of Natural History.

Like CBCs now, the birders trekked into residential areas in search of interesting species. The piece relates an anecdote that would be familiar to many CBC participants.

One party was easing into some woods to investigate an odd sound when a woman emerged from a nearby house and advanced with the obvious intent of chasing them off her property.

"We're looking for birds. We’re making the Christmas Bird Count," Philip A. Livingston, a publisher, hurried to explain.

"Oh, I thought you were hunters," the woman said. "You can look all you want to."

Then she added helpfully, "Say, I've got a Peterson's guide up at the house."

Then there’s the storied CBC practice of tallying up one’s sightings for the day and the boasting that sometimes goes with it.

And in the darkness, long after nightfall, they were still huddled over their lists, checking their totals and gloating over rare finds they had made during the long day.

The CBC was a lot smaller then, and far fewer people considered themselves birders than now. Technology was next to non-existent. Birding was an exclusive, sometimes-elitist pursuit, characteristics that have persisted for far too long.

If anything, though, maybe the SI article can inspire a future where birds and birders again garner national exposure, and where we can be more inclusive and welcome more people into the fold—a trend that is already under way. Achieving these goals would have a very positive benefit, for people and for the plight of our birds.

Click here to read the full Sports Illustrated piece.

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