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Christmas Bird Counts NYC in 1920 and Alvah Bessie: Black-listed Author/Birder

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

Snow Bunting in winter plumage, 21 December 2020 by Deborah Allen

23 December 2020

Bird Notes: There are three owl walks coming up this Fri/Sat/Sun starting in the late afternoon (dusk) looking for Barred Owls, Great Horned Owls and Eastern Screech-owls - at three different parks in NYC (Manhattan/2 and the Bronx/1). Check the Schedule page of this web site for details, and/or the information in this Newsletter below. Due to the forecast of heavy rain on Friday morning, we've cancelled the Christmas morning walk - but the 9:30am walk on Sunday (27 December) will take place as usual.

We continue the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) season Historical Notes. This week we present (a) 1920 CBCs at various sites in/near NYC. Unfortunately in 1920, both the Central Park and Prospect Park (Brooklyn) Christmas Counts never made it to publication. However, for those counts we do have from 1920, we can't help but notice all the American Tree Sparrows - so many! We are lucky if we see a handful in a 21st century CBC in the NYC area. These century old counts are also amazing for the birds that are not mentioned that we take for granted in December today: Red-tailed Hawks, Fox Sparrows, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Ring-billed Gulls. Where are the waterfowl such as Mallards and Canada Geese?

In 1920 we were about to enter a new age of birding with the advent of the Bronx County Bird Club - more on them in the coming months. On this Christmas Count in 1920 in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, we meet Alvah C. Bessie (photo below), a young man of about 16 years of age, and President of the Biological Field Club of DeWitt Clinton High School, then in Manhattan. In the 1930s Bessie wrote several novels and began screenwriting - though he was blacklisted in 1947 as one of the "Hollywood Ten". Along the way, this Jewish kid born in Manhattan (Harlem) fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, and wrote a book about his experiences that was favorably reviewed by Ernest Hemingway. He helped start the American Newspaper Guild while he wrote for the Brooklyn Eagle. You can read more about Alvah C. Bessie here and here. His niece was birder Phoebe Snetsinger - look her up!

And belatedly in (b), we learn how the Black-capped Chickadees of Central Park were tamed in December 1899, via the work (and writing) of Anne A. Crolius who was a long-time bird watcher in Central Park in the early 20th century.

Manhattan born Alvah C. Bessie in the Spanish Civil War sometime in the 1930s.

At age 16 he participated in two 1920 NYC Christmas Bird Counts. He would become a critically acclaimed novelist and screenwriter, but was black-listed in 1947.

(below) LeConte's Sparrow on 21 December 2020 by Deborah Allen

Bird Walks for Late December 2020

All Walks @ $10/person

1. [CANCELLED] Friday, 25 December at 9:30am. CANCELLED RAIN. Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/East Drive $10 but rain ends by 1pm so:

1a OWLS. Friday, 25 December (Christmas Day) at 4:30pm (Central Park) for BARRED OWL - $10. See Schedule page for details on this OWL Walk. Meet at 4:30pm at the Boathouse Cafe/Restaurant at 74th street/East Drive inside Central Park $10


2 OWLS. Saturday, 26 December at 4:00pm for Eastern Screech-owls and Great Horned Owls. Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. $10. See Details on the Schedule page

Meet at the Parking Lot (free parking) of the Golf Course Club House

ADDRESS for GPS: Van Cortlandt Park South & Bailey Avenue, 10463 Bronx


3. Sunday, 27 December at 9:30am. Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/East Drive $10

3a OWLS. Sunday, 27 December at 4:00pm (Inwood Hill Park/Manhattan) for Great Horned Owls and Eastern Screech-owls - $10. See Schedule page for details on this OWL Walk.

Meet at the Indian Road Cafe (600 W 218th St, New York, NY 10034)

For Directions: Indian Road Cafe (scroll down a bit)


Call (718-828-8262) or Email us with questions:

Savannah Sparrow on 21 December 2020 by Deborah Allen

(below) Song Sparrow; Central Park (Green Bench), 19 December 2020 by Deborah Allen

The fine print: Our walks on weekends meet at 7:30/9:30am at the Boathouse Restaurant (approx. 74th street and the East Drive). Please note: the Boathouse is not one of the buildings that surround the nearby Model Boat Pond - people make this mistake all the time! Fridays we meet at Conservatory Garden; Mondays at Strawberry Fields - check the "Meeting Points" page of this web site for exact meeting location.

Our home phone is 718-828-8262...and Deborah's cell is: 347-703-5554. Email is ( If you are lost and trying to get to the bird walk, call Deborah's cell phone...but remember on weekends there will be 2-3 other people calling who are also lost - please be patient. If in doubt about whether a walk will take place or not the morning of the walk: check the main landing page of this web site as well as the "Schedule" page - if the walk is cancelled, information will be posted there by 6am the day of the walk, and usually by 11pm the night before. If still confused and as a last resort, call us at home - if no one answers it means we left for the bird walk. We end all our Central Park walks (except Fridays) near the Boathouse at about noon; you can get a cup of coffee and a muffin there (around $6 total) - though the Boathouse is closed right now and will re-open in April 2021 according to the owners. Walks last about 3 hrs (less if hot or rainy), and you can leave at anytime - we won't be offended. If you need directions/help to your next destination, just ask someone on the walk - we aim to please.

Peregrine Falcon (adult female) north end of the Reservoir Central Park 19 Dec 2020 by Deborah Allen

Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights)

Saturday, 19 December: (Conservatory Garden at 9:30am): We did OK considering it is December with the highlight being the American Tree Sparrow at the Green Bench (and Christmas cookies delivered to us by Tom Ahlf baked by his significant other, Mickie). We fed birds like crazy along the Loch, and then headed south to the Reservoir: Hooded Mergansers, American Coots, Ruddy Ducks - and then David Barrett spied a perched adult female Peregrine Falcon (see photos just above and just below by D. Allen). She was west of the Pump House building along the north path of the Reservoir. BUT she was not there for long! I used the "echup" call from my tape and we soon had the Peregrine swooping back and forth in front of us and landing right over our heads. She called back to the tape repeatedly...and I took this as my cue to fly (run) down the path about 50 yards away and then play the echup call again...The Peregrine immediately came towards my call about 10 feet over the path, and right at my head. We did this for about 20 minutes with everyone getting great photos and videos - and the crowd of joggers, walkers and others who stopped were simply amazed at this Peregrine Falcon. We left with the female Peregrine still echupping...and later (one hour) we would get a report that she caught and ate a pigeon in the same area.

Deborah's List of Birds for Saturday, 19 December:

Sunday, 20 December (Boathouse Restaurant at 7:30am and again at 9:30am): Please note: the bathrooms at the Boathouse are NOT open. However, we do pass two other sets of bathrooms on the walk. This was the last 7:30am walk for a while - probably until March. This was Christmas Count morning so I was out early picking up Red-breasted Nuthatch and Swamp Sparrow that hopefully the "official" group also saw. Other than that I can't think of much else of note, except a sleeping Barred Owl in the Hemlock - that would be Barry Barred Owl - and see what happened this Sunday night.

Deborah's List of Birds for Sunday, 20 December:

OWL WALKS Sunday night (20 December) for Barred Owl (Central Park): We waited longer than usual for the fly out of Barry Barred Owl tonight - about 505pm. Just before the owl flew I played one of my owl calls, and the Barred Owl responded in kind with a resonating "Wh-Cooks-for-You". The night before (Saturday) the owl headed east; tonight after flying in over my head, the Barred Owl headed west into the Ramble - and so did our group. We used the tape to bring the owl above us at Azalea Pond - everyone had great looks. And then a few minutes later (after most people had left due to the wet slushy conditions of the paths in the Ramble), we found the owl perched in a low tree, about 8 feet high, just above a night roost of 25 White-throated Sparrows in a thicket. These sparrows are quite noisy at night - and easy to ID because they sing partial songs. We watched Barry Barred Owl a bit more - and then we got cold and went home too - that was 5:45pm. Perhaps Barry had sparrow for dinner?

Peregrine Falcon (adult female) north end of the Reservoir Central Park 19 Dec 2020

Deborah Allen


Bird-Lore's Twenty-first Christmas Census for 1920

THE highest number of species recorded in this census, in the northern and middle Atlantic States, is 38 at Montauk, Long Island, and Cape May, N.J.; in the south, 58 at Plant City, Fla., and in the Mississippi Valley, 35 at Kansas City; and on the Pacific Coast, Santa Barbara with 96 has no close competitor. The unusually open season, no doubt, accounts for a number of sporadic records of birds far north of their usual winter range, such as the Phoebe, Catbird, and Palm Warbler. The early date at which the census goes to press leaves little opportunity for statistical study of it. We may note, however, that the ‘comeback' anticipated for the Golden-crowned Kinglet exceeds our expectations. In the 1919 census, 26 of the 138 lists for states east of the Mississippi reported 1 to 11 individuals of this species, with a total of 85. This year (1920), 41 of 134 lists record 1 to 37 individuals with a total of 278.

On the other hand, the scarcity of birds in places is less general than was anticipated. The average total species for Massachusetts is 14, versus 16 in 1919; whereas in New York it is 17, and in New Jersey it is 20, in both 1919 and 1920. In Ohio, however, there has been an increase of from an average of 16 in 1919 to 18 in 1920. J. T. Nichols.

New York City/Environs

New York City/the Bronx (Simpson Street subway station to Clason Point, Castle Hill, and West Farms). 25 December 1920; 2 to 4.45 p.m. Clear; ground bare; wind northwest, brisk; temp. 35f at start, 29f at return. Unidentified diving bird, 1; Herring Gull, 3,000 (estimated) ; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 1; Starling, 83; Tree Sparrow, 6 (flock); Song Sparrow, 1. Total, 6 species, (about) 3,092 individuals.

George E. Hix.


New York City/the Bronx (Van Cortlandt Park, Bronx Park, and Clason Point). 24 December 1920; 8.45 A.M. to 5 P.M. Partly cloudy; ground bare; wind west, brisk; temp. 36f. About 14 miles on foot. Herring Gull, 1,200; Scaup Duck (sp, ?), 200; Black-crowned Night Heron, 75 (in the L. Agassiz colony [Bx Zoo]); Red- tailed Hawk, 2; Hairy Woodpecker, 1; Downy Woodpecker, 6; Blue Jay, 3; American Crow, 21; Starling, 456; Red-winged Blackbird, 1 (male); White-throated Sparrow, 48; Tree Sparrow, 114; Field Sparrow, 1; Slate-colored Junco, 88; Song Sparrow, 25; Fox Sparrow, 1; Brown Creeper, 6; Black-capped Chickadee, 2; Golden-crowned Kinglet, flock of 5 in Bronx Park. Total, 19 species, 2,255 individuals.

L. Nelson Nichols, Edward G. Nichols and Philip H. Nelson.


New York City/the Bronx (Van Cortlandt Park). 26 December 1920; 9.30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cloudy; light breeze; temp. 15f to 20f. Herring Gull. 2; Sparrow Hawk [American Kestrel], 1; Hairy Woodpecker, 1; Downy Woodpecker, 2; Crow, 5; Starling, 16; Grackle, 1; White-throated Sparrow, 23; Tree Sparrow, 35; Junco, 4; Song Sparrow, 22; White-breasted Nuthatch, 2. Total, 12 species, 112 individuals. On the 20th both Wilson's Snipe and Fox Sparrow were seen by Mr. Eisenmann. This year there seems to be an extreme rarity of Chickadees.

Alvah C. Bessie and Eugene Eisenmann.


New York City/the Bronx (Van Cortlandt Park). 24 December 1920; 1.30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Cloudy; extremely cold; temp. 35f to 20f. Herring Gull, 3; Hawks (unidentified), 4; Sparrow Hawk [American Kestrel], 1; Hairy Woodpecker, 2; Downy Woodpecker, 1; Crow, 1; Starling, 2; White-throated Sparrow, 10; Tree Sparrow, 25; Junco, 2; Song Sparrow, 2; Brown Creeper, 1; White-breasted Nuthatch, 2. Total, 13 species, 47 individuals. Parts of the lake were covered with an inch of ice.

Biological Field Club of DeWitt Clinton High School,

Alvah C. Bessie, President.


Douglaston [Queens], L. I., N. Y. 26 December 1920; 9 a.m. to 12noon and 2.30 to 4 p.m. Partly cloudy; ground bare; wind north, light; temp. 19f at start, 28f at return. Seven miles on foot. Observers together. Herring Gull, 125; about 800 wild Ducks on Little Neck Bay, at least 200 of which were Scaups, and at least the same number of which were Golden-eyes; Black-crowned Night Heron, 10 (a small wintering colony); Sparrow Hawk [American Kestrel], 2; Belted Kingfisher, 4; Downy Woodpecker, 4; Crow, 30; Fish Crow, 30 (the voices of both species of Crows were heard many times, but the relative numbers of each seen were estimated); Starling, 210; White-throated Sparrow, 22; Tree Sparrow, 15; Slate-colored Junco, 80; Song Sparrow, 34; Swamp Sparrow, 4; Chickadee, 6. Total, 16 species,

(about) 1,375 individuals.

Mr. and Mrs. G. Clyde Fisher and Farida A. Wiley.


Staten Island, N. Y. (Moravian Cemetery, Great Kills and Princess Bay). 26 December 1920; 8 A.M. to 4 P.M. Partly cloudy; wind northerly; temp. 25f. Eleven miles on foot. Observers together. Horned Grebe, 3; Loon, 1; Great Black-backed Gull, 15; Herring Gull, 500; Ring-billed Gull, 6; Bonaparte's Gull, 8; Scaup Duck, 3; Golden-eye, 10; Bufflehead, 5; Old Squaw [Long-tailed Duck], 6; Scoter, 6; White-winged Scoter, 1; Sparrow Hawk [American Kestrel], 2; Prairie Horned Lark, 3; Blue Jay, 2; Crow, 15; Starling, 400; Goldfinch, 6; White-throated Sparrow, 1; Tree Sparrow, 1; Field Sparrow, 1; Junco, 20; Song Sparrow, 3; Cardinal, 1; Orange-crowned Warbler, 1; (Yellow?) Palm Warbler, 1; Chickadee, 50; Robin, 1. Total, 28 species, 1,072 individuals. Both Orange-crowned and (Yellow?) Palm Warblers observed at close range, the Orange-crowned studied at leisure; no white eye-ring.

George B. Wilmott and Lester L. Walsh (Brooklyn Bird-Lovers' Club).

Canada Geese on migration over Central Park post snowstorm 19 Dec 2020 by D. Allen

How the Central Park Chickadees Were Tamed (Dec. 1898)

Anne A. Crolius

IN the early part of the winter of 1898-99 Chickadees were unusually abundant in Central Park, New York City, and a friend and myself saw them come down and get some of the nuts we were feeding to White-throated Sparrows.

We were, of course, much interested, and determined to see if we could tame them. They would take the nuts to a limb, eat all they wished, and hide the rest in crevices in trees or bushes, where, I think, they seldom found them again, for the impudent and ever wide-awake English Sparrow watched and got the pieces almost as soon as they were deposited. After feeding them in this way for some time, we tried to get them to eat from our hands, and finally succeeded by first placing our hands on the ground with a nut about a foot from our fingers, then a little nearer, then on the ends of our fingers, and lastly in the palms of our hands. There was a great shout when they hopped on our hands the first time, our delight being indescribable.

Finding that kneeling or bending over on the ground was rather hard work, we tried holding out our hands when standing, or while sitting on the benches, and they very soon came, no matter where we were or in what attitude. The little creatures never seemed to get tired if we remained hours at a time, and it was indeed difficult to tear oneself away. Just as I would make up my mind to be off one would fly over my head calling chick-a-dee-dee in such a bewitching way as to make it impossible to leave. I would say to myself, "Just one piece more," then throw a lot of nuts on the ground and make a 'bee line' for home, never looking back for fear the temptation would be too great, and I should find myself retracing my steps.

After a time they would come to me and follow me anywhere in the park, whenever I called them, and getting better acquainted I found the birds possessed of so many different traits of character that I named each one accordingly. One I called the 'Scatterer,' because he stood on my hand and deliberately threw piece after piece of nut on the ground, looking down as they fell with the most mischievous twinkle in his eyes, as much as to say, "see what I've done," then take a piece and fly away. This he did dozens of times in succession.

I thought at first he would rather pick them up from the ground, but he came directly back and waited for me to do it. Another I called "Little Ruffled Breast," on account of the feathers on the breast being rough and much darker than the rest. He was the most affectionate, had a sweet disposition, and, like human beings of the same character, was often imposed upon, many times being driven off by the others when he was just about taking a nut. He was very tame, and had perfect confidence in anyone who would feed him. The third I named the 'Boss,' because he took the lead and carried the day. He was a beauty, spick and span in his dress, not a feather out of place, and plump and perfect in form. The fourth, dubbed 'Little Greedy,' was very fascinating, and I must confess to loving him more than the rest, having had a most novel experience with him. and one never to be forgotten. He came to me one morning, and, lighting on my hand, sang chick-adee-dee two or three times, helped himself to a nut, and, perching on my forefinger, put the nut under his foot, as I have seen them do many a time on the trees, remaining there until he had eaten it. I was thrilled through and through with the sensation and the perfect trustfulness of the little creature, and was sorry when he had finished. But why was he called Greedy? Because he usually took two pieces instead of one, and, strange to say, knew that he must have both the same size or one would fall out. It was very funny to see him with a good sized piece, his bill stretched to its utmost capacity, trying to fit in another. He turned his bill first on one side then on the other, thinking he could wedge it in by forcing it against my hand, and he succeeded in this wonderful feat by his perseverance and indomitable will.


Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD

Follow our Bird Sightings on Twitter: @DAllenNYC and/or @BirdingBobNYC

(above) Long-eared Owls in Serbia, Dark and Light Morph Extremes 2008


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