For the Birds Radio Program: Christmas Bird Count 1989

Original Air Date: Dec. 15, 1989

Many Northland Christmas Bird Counts will take place during the next 18 days. (4:02)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Varied Thrush)

Tomorrow begins the 90th annual Christmas Bird Count season. This tradition began on Christmas Day in the year 1900, when 27 intrepid but binocular-less strollers searched for birds in 25 locations, mostly around major northeastern cities. They had been inspired by Frank Chapman, who had the novel idea that it might be fun to go out one day of the year and look at birds rather than shooting them. Since then the annual event has grown from its original 25 count areas to more than 1500, which now include every Canadian province, every American state, Bermuda, many Central American countries, and numerous West Indian and Hawaiian islands. Over 42,000 people participated in last year’s event.

Northland counts can’t hope to match the number of species tallied in more southerly climes. Last year’s big time winner was Santa Barbara, California, with 218 species seen in a circle 15 miles in diameter. Freeport, Texas was second with 208 species. In comparison, Duluth’s count had 53 species, Grand Rapids had 32, Ashland 28, Isabella 18, and Marquette, Michigan 15. But we can hardly complain–The Prudhoe Bay, Alaska Count had only one species—Common Raven. The two birders on that count managed to find 15 of the majestic corvids during the brief mid-day twilight—the sun had last set on Prudhoe Bay in November and would not rise above the horizon until February.

Christmas bird counts do more than just get people outdoors looking at birds. All the count data is compiled in American Birds magazine, the journal of the National Audubon Society, and is available for ornithologists to use to try to discern trends in avian distribution and populations. For example, last year’s count showed a major decrease in Bohemian Waxwings throughout the continent. Most species of blackbirds also showed decreases. Numbers of Grasshopper Sparrows, which rely on old fields for their habitat, were disturbingly low, while Pileated Woodpeckers remained fairly constant. Several warblers species were found well north of their normal winter ranges. Because some count compilers are less concerned with accuracy than others–for example, at least one dog is named as a participant in a Minnesota count—we shouldn’t rely too heavily on Count data in drawing scientific conclusions. But Christmas Bird Counts do provide a wealth of information about rare birds, and can be useful in corroborating conclusions based on other data. After all, what other research project in the entire world has data collected by over 42,000 volunteers? And Christmas bird count participants are actually more than volunteers–they each have to cough up a $4 participation fee in order to cover the expense of printing the data in American Birds.

As of last year there was no Christmas Bird Count in Hayward or Spooner, but many other large towns and cities in our listening area do have counts. Because the only way we can boost our species totals in the Northland is to get any late stragglers that haven’t left or succumbed to the cold yet, just about all the counts are held as early in the count period as possible–Duluth’s count will be held tomorrow, the first possible day this year, in hopes that the Twin Ports can again beat out its nemesis, Rochester. But valid counts can take place as late as January 3rd. Why not spend a few hours outdoors counting birds during this Christmas season? Even if you don’t take part in an official Christmas Bird Count, escaping from the bustle and commercialism of the season to the simplicity of the natural world for a short while may restore peace and good will to your hectic December days.

(Recording of a Varied Thrush)

This is Laura Erickson and this program has been “For the Birds.”