By Cain Madden/The Natchez Democrat
NATCHEZ — It is part fun, part science.
That combination has had Bill McGehee of Natchez and David King of Vicksburg braving the winter weather for 30-plus years, all in the name of bird counting for the National Audubon Society’s annual publication.
“Christmas bird counts go back over 100 years,” King said. “It is a large database of natural history, and you can use it to track long-term changes. For instance, we can see that one particular species is down and we can start worrying about them. Or, we can see that another species is dealing well, and stop worrying about them.”
King said that the bird count was started as a means to protect the birds.
Vicksburg’s David King uses his binoculars to observe different species of birds during the Christmas Bird Count, Saturday afternoon at Grand Village of Natchez Indians. “At one time, it was common to put birds on women’s hats,” King said. “This was decimating the rookeries.”
Another contributing factor was a hobby, McGehee said.
“For entertainment, at one time, it was common for people to go out and shoot and pile up small animals, to see who could get the biggest pile,” McGehee said. “The National Audubon Society started this as an alternative to this slaughter.”
Saturday morning, McGehee and King observed a rare peregrine falcon and a cackling goose on the Vidalia levees.
“Those are what you call bragging birds,” McGehee said.
McGehee said he has seen a peregrine falcon over the last two Christmas counts, but that you could go five years without seeing one.
Along the levees, the birding duo mainly saw waterfowl, such as ducks, but the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians roosted different types of birds, such as chickadees and cardinals.
As they walked among the reeds on the nature trail, King played a tape of screech owl noises.
“During the day time, when they hear a screech owl, they will mob it,” King said. “They want to drive it out of their territory, and as they come in, you get a lot better looks at the different birds, if you play a tape like this.”
King also made a hissing sound every hundred feet or so.
“That is called pishing,” King said. “It is a noise that birds usually find interesting and come investigate.”
McGehee said that birds are natural investigators.
“Birds tend to be nosey,” McGehee said. “If they hear something unusual, they will want to find out what is making the noise.”
Along the trail, King heard an unusual bird call.
“That sounds like a Carolina Wren,” King said.
“I call anything I don’t know what it is a Carolina Wren because they can make many different types of noises.”
King said he is better at bird spotting, but he has friends who can go into a forest blindfolded and identify more than he can, just because of what they hear.
“When I was living in Southern California, I went birding with a friend who had never been there,” King said.
“She listened to a tape of bird calls in the region on the car ride over, and just as soon as she stepped out of the car, she was identifying all sorts of the birds in the area.”
McGehee took up birding about 40 years ago.
“I started off duck hunting,” McGehee said. “I decided I liked watching them more than I did shooting them, so I left the gun at home and started carrying binoculars.”
McGehee said he enjoys it for two reasons the beauty and alien nature of birds.
“Well, for one, they are just beautiful,” McGehee said. “You can get a lot of pleasure just looking at them.
“Two, they are completely different from humans you can spend a lifetime studying them and never run out of material.”
McGehee is the Natchez compiler, and King is a regional editor both volunteer positions though McGehee added that participating birders would get their names recorded in the publication.
King said this was the first time he had participated in the Natchez count.
“I knew Bill was the compiler, so I called him up and asked if I could go birding with him,” King said. “He was kind enough to let me stay at his house.”