January 3, 2020
Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) began in 1900 and are run under the auspices of the National Audubon Society. Last year, 2,646 counts took place, involving 81,601 observers. The vast majority take place in the United States and Canada. More than 50 counts occur in Ohio.
The aim of a CBC is to count all birds seen within a 15-mile diameter, in a 24-hour time frame. Each count must take place over a three-week time span, from mid-December to early January. One hundred and twenty years of these counts have created a robust data set of winter bird life.
Of all the bird counts I have done, the Chandlersville event is the most interesting. That’s because the Wilds, a 10,000-acre large-animal conservation and research facility, is within the circle. Luckily for me, compiler Scott Albaugh assigned me to partner with Wilds staff back in 2010. I haven’t missed a count since.
Our turf includes the inside of the Wilds’ big fences. Mammalian distractions are frequent. The Wilds houses about 25 species of mammals, and their presence creates a surreal environment. It’s all we can do to focus on the wild birds, which are plentiful.
This year, our crew tallied nearly 50 bird species, including goodies such as killdeer, northern pintail and rough-legged hawk.
Our leaders were Jan Ramer, vice president of the Wilds, and Genelle Uhrig, wildlife ecology associate. They provided a wonderful opportunity to learn about mammals and their conservation.
Car caravanning along the gravel roads is always interesting. At one point, progress was delayed by a herd of Sichuan takin, a massive, bear-like relative of goats. Indigenous to Tibet and adjacent China, takin are at home in an Ohio winter.
Not far down the road, a group of Pere David’s Deer blocked the path. This species was extirpated in its native China by 1900, and it was saved by zoos and research facilities that had obtained animals. The deer has since been reintroduced to the wild.
At one point, I spotted a pair of massive Bactrian camels on a ridge. I was grateful that the male wasn’t yet in breeding condition.
One year, he was foaming at the mouth — like a bubble bath had blown up in his face — and foul with urine that he had sprayed all over himself. Naturally, this attracted a female who found him irresistible. The male camel saw our vehicle as a possible rival and lit out after us. The driver didn’t notice. I looked back to see the enraged, foam-faced, urine-soaked beast gaining quickly. I yelled “Floor it, man!” He stood on it and we finally outran the thing.
Other mammal observations included African painted dog, cheetah, dhole, Grevy’s zebra, Persian onager, Przewalski’s wild horse, sable antelope and more.
The Wilds also works with animals indigenous to the area, such as the rare American burying beetle and Eastern hellbender salamander.
The highlight was a stop at the rhino house. The Wilds has long worked with the southern white rhinoceros, and 24 calves have been born here. Keeper Dave Clawson has tended to the rhinos for three decades, and he is a big part of this success.
Dave showed us the most recent additions: a week-old female, and a baby boy born just the day before (pictured). One hundred-pound baby rhinos are playful as puppies. Their nearly 2-ton mothers make good supervisors.
Kudos to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium for its support of the Wilds and its expansive mission.
The Wilds is an amazing institution that does conservation work on a global scale. A visit is highly recommended. Specialized “Winter at the Wilds” tours are available, and you would be hard-pressed to find a more interesting wintertime diversion.
For details, visit https://thewilds.columbuszoo.org.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.