For the Birds Radio Program: Christmas Bird Count

Original Air Date: Dec. 14, 2000

How will Laura be strategizing the Christmas Bird Count this year?

Duration: 4′33″


Every Christmastime since 1900, birders have spent a day counting birds. This tradition began as a quiet protest to the older tradition of shooting birds around Christmas. Now people in every state and Canadian province, and in many areas of Central America, keep counts within circles 15 miles in diameter. We people living near Lake Superior have several counts to choose from. The ones with the most participants are probably the Duluth and Ashland counts which run this year on December 16. But in the days before and after that count, a host of other counts will be taking place in Two Harbors, Grand Marais, Isabella, the Sax-Zim bog near Meadowlands, and Cornucopia, Wisconsin.

Each group sets out, usually at first light, to see all the birds they possibly can in their assigned area. I like to start out well before first light, searching out owls. Some years I’ve been lucky enough to hear a Barred or Saw-whet Owl. This year will probably be way above average in terms of owl numbers–Snowies, Great Grays, Boreals, and Northern Hawk-Owls have all been reported in strong numbers since October. So an early start should boost our group’s species total by one or two.

My count area includes my own backyard, and I’m hopeful of spotting two species we’ve never had before-White throated Sparrow and Northern Cardinal. I’ve had two White-throats for several weeks, and as many as four cardinals for over a week, so if the cold weather doesn’t shoo them away, my group may be in for a treat. Once before I had a cardinal in my count area, when we had a singing bird in the neighborhood, but I’ve never had a cardinal in my own yard on a Christmas Bird Count before, so I sure hope I get at least one this year. Cardinals are breeding in two or three neighborhoods in Duluth, and I would think that with their increasing numbers this year may give us our highest total ever.

My yard has been filled with siskins and a smattering of goldfinches for the past week, and I’m hopeful they’ll stick around, along with a little flock of House Finches, which would be another first for my area on the Christmas bird count. I can’t help but miss the days when I could count on Evening Grosbeaks and usually also had Pine Grosbeaks in my yard the day of the bird count. Evening Grosbeaks seem to be fewer and farther between now. They’re a flocking bird, so when they appear at a feeder at all it tends to be in good numbers, but fewer and fewer feeders seem to get them. Evening Grosbeaks depend heavily on box elder seeds during their breeding season.

As foresters and loggers manage US and Canadian forests on shorter and shorter rotation cycles to produce more and more pulp and paper as opposed to saw logs, even short-lived trees like box elders are probably being reduced in numbers, which could well explain the decline in grosbeaks. So I’ll be watching and listening for them, but don’t expect to see as many as I once did.

I’m bringing along my secret weapon-my friend Billie Hunter. The first time she came with my group, she told me she had dreamt the night before of Snow Buntings. I gently broke it to her that my group NEVER sees snow buntings–our area has inappropriate habitat for these birds of wind-swept plains. We headed out to the mouth of the Lester River at first light, and there on the shore was a Snow Bunting. This year I hope Billie dreams ofBoreal Owls and cardinals and Evening Grosbeaks. But whatever we see, it will be a fun day. If you’re interested in participating in one of this year’s counts, send me an e-mail to .