For the Birds Radio Program: Christmas Bird Count 1988

Original Air Date: Dec. 16, 1988

Tomorrow is Duluth’s annual Christmas Bird Count—an annual rite of December.

Duration: 3′58″


Christmas Bird Count (Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

Tomorrow is the annual Christmas Bird Count day in many cities in Minnesota and Wisconsin, including Duluth. I’ll be setting out at 5 in the morning in search of owls, and once the sun rises 50 or 60 people will be out combing the neighborhoods of Duluth in search of birds. So if you notice someone checking out your yard with binoculars, don’t be alarmed, and please don’t fire a shotgun at them, like a woman did at some birders two years ago. Birdwatchers may be strange, but they’re certainly innocuous.

The Christmas Bird Count tradition began on Christmas day, 1900, so this year’s is the 89th annual count. It started out with a handful of birdwatchers, but now has mushroomed to include over 1500 count circles throughout North and Central America, with well over 41,000 participants. In 1986 there were 46 counts in Wisconsin, including ones in Appleton, Ashland, Chippewa Falls, and Medford, and 37 counts in Minnesota, including ones in Grand Rapids, the Sax-Zim bog area, and Duluth. If you’d like more information about any of these counts, drop me a line.

Even if you don’t take part in the actual count, you can make an important contribution to your area’s count if you have a bird feeder. Every year rare birds turn up at feeders which aren’t found by any of the official groups–these birds can be counted, contributing to a feeling of regional chauvinism, if the feeder owner reports them to the compiler. The most desirable species are hawks and owls, any woodpecker except a Hairy or Downy, Gray Jays, Boreal Chickadees, Fox, Song, and White-throated Sparrows, Golden-crowned Kinglets, robins and varied thrushes, waxwings, cardinals, Snow Buntings, Hoary Redpolls, goldfinches, Purple Finches, Brown Creepers, crossbills, red-wings, grackles, and Rusty Blackbirds, and Pine Siskins. If you spot any of these birds tomorrow, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with the compiler in your area. Sometimes it takes a week or two for the compilers to hear about the last bird for their area.

Last year Rochester set an all-time Minnesota record with 63 species, and Milwaukee and Madison are always the main contenders for Wisconsin’s top count, so we need all the help we can get to make Northland counts competitive. Duluth has edged out Rochester three times since 1979, and our best count was 57 species found in 1984. That record would never have been possible without the contributions of feeder watchers.

Counting most winter birds isn’t hard, but a few species are tricky. Chickadees fly in and out constantly while eating, and so it’s hard to count them right at the feeder. But each chickadee flock follows a definite route each day, and so if you watch them carefully you can figure out where they always head after visiting your feeder. Then you can count them as they cross a road or other opening–they pass by one by one and are easy to count then.Waxwings are another tricky group to count, if only because they’re a boom or bust species. If you see any at all, you’re likely to see a lot–and some winter flocks of Bohemian waxwings can number close to 1000. Their flight pattern within the flock is erratic, but once they land in a bare tree you can set to work–the worst problem with them is that they always seem to take off after you’ve counted a large fraction of them.

All in all, the Christmas Bird Count is a challenging sport, and a great way to meet new people and appreciate the Northland’s frozen beauty. (Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee) This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”