For the Birds Radio Program: Christmas Bird Count

Original Air Date: Dec. 15, 1995

Tomorrow is Duluth’s Christmas Bird Count, and Laura Erickson will be out there. (3:46) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


Tomorrow is Duluth’s annual Christmas Bird Count, an event that opens the Christmas season for me. I’ll be starting out about 4 am with Frank Nicoletti, searching for owls. Most years I don’t get any owls. If a cold, fierce wind is blowing, we’ll probably just go back to bed. When I go out owling with other people, it’s tricky to have to cancel, making a phone call in the wee hours without waking families or roommates. But Frank was imported from New York to be our Hawk Ridge counter, and he’s been staying at my house this fall, so if the weather doesn’t cooperate, I’ll just bang on his door.

Of course, even if the weather is perfect, seeing an owl is pretty improbable. Only twice have I actually found one the morning of the count. There was a saw-whet owl right in my neighborhood one year, and one particularly long, icy drive was rewarded with a single Great Horned Owl. I have seen one hawk owl and two great grays on Christmas Bird Counts, but those were during afternoons, not when I was actually owling. It could be argued that the dozens of hours I’ve spent driving and walking in the frozen darkness weren’t worth the two owls I found, but it could also be argued that the hours of preparation and cooking for Christmas dinner aren’t worth the few short minutes people actually spend eating it. Seeing even one owl now and then warms and delights like a satisfying Christmas meal, and since seeing an owl is less certain than Christmas dinner, it carries a special magic.

Frank and I will quit owling and return to my house about 7, when he’ll go off to Hawk Ridge to count any late migrating eagles, and I’ll meet up with three friends: Karen Keenan, Billie Hunter, and Mariah Christenson, for a full day of birding. I’ve covered the same area for 15 years now, except 1983, when my daughter Katie was 6 days old but this year I lobbied Kim Eckert, who is in charge of Duluth’s count, to redraw the boundaries of my district one block so for the first time ever I can count my own Peabody Street birds.

Every year we scour the streets and alleys of Lakeside. People covering remote countryside may have a more natural, pretty setting, but winter birds in Minnesota are drawn to feeders, so residential areas like mine get both bigger numbers and more variety. I usually tally something around 20 or 25 species in my neighborhood, and the combined count totals for our 15-mile circle should add up to something around 50 or 60 species. The all-time record for the state, set last year in Bloomington, is 65 species, so naturally this year we’re shooting for 66. We feel some regional chauvinism during the Christmas Bird Count, and if we can’t top Rochester or Bloomington for number of species seen, we can at least beat them in cold temperatures and wind speed. We of the North Woods apparently believe that suffering per species should be factored in. But complain as we Northlanders do, we still have a lot of fun on the Christmas Bird Count, plus vigorous exercise, and we find satisfaction not only in a jolly competition but also in providing important information about bird numbers and the state of our environment. That’s the best kind of tradition of all.