For the Birds Radio Program: Christmas Bird Count 2002: Summary

Original Air Date: Dec. 17, 2002

2002 marks the first year in Duluth Christmas Bird Count history that not a single Evening Grosbeak was counted.

Duration: 4′38″


On Saturday, December 14, Duluth birders held their annual Christmas Bird Count. It was a pleasant, mild day, actually breaking the record for warm temperature, but the count was lackluster, with 52 species recorded, which is below average, and we counted smaller than normal numbers of several of them. So much cold weather earlier in the season sent many birds south, while the lack of snow kept many northern birds north.

But there’s an eeriness about the small number of birds at feeders this year. For so many years now when people have noticed a lack of birds, we didn’t feel right saying birds are declining, because you just can’t draw any conclusions from a single year, or two years in a row, or three. But overall the bird numbers just don’t go back up. This marked the first year in the Duluth Christmas Bird Count’s history when there wasn’t a single Evening Grosbeak counted. And redpolls were almost missed, too. Both of these are considered irruptive species, which naturally have boom or bust years, so it’s extremely hard to have any certainty about what’s happening to them. But redpolls require birch seeds, which are becoming scarce throughout the northern hemisphere, and Evening Grosbeaks specialize on maples and especially box elders. Now that so very much of the northern forest is being managed for paper and pulpwood, we’ve squeezed them out, too.

Last year we had our highest number of species on the count, with 73, but many of them were late ducks that stuck around because of the mild weather. This year’s total was a lot smaller, but not too much below the average since the 70s. It’s more the dwindling number of individuals than the number of species that has me concerned. My husband used to have a real task counting the birds at our feeder while I was out on my route–the flocks of grosbeaks and finches, the little woodpeckers and the many flocks of chickadees. Just about any time you looked out the window there was a flock of chickadees there. Now much of the time there wouldn’t be anything to see in the yard if it weren’t for the squirrels-most of the time there isn’t even a chickadee to be found. So teasing birds out on the Christmas Bird Count requires more and more effort.

The coolest thing about this year’s count was the five Eastern Bluebirds that turned up for the first time ever. One of the women in my group, Janet, has been seeing five at Leif Erickson Park near the lakewalk on her lunch hours, so she alerted the team that covers that area. On Saturday they found one of her birds. But meanwhile, another team found four of them up in Hunter’s Park, feeding on mountain ash berries. Although we’ve had a cold fall, there are plenty of berries and not much competition right now for birds feeding on them, so the bluebirds may even spend the whole winter up here.

The world is changing too fast to assimilate. Progress used to feel like a real positive, but now the only things that seem to mark positive progress are in the world of computers. Cars are barely getting more gas mileage than in the 70s. Pollution and crime are both on the rise after sort of stabilizing, in many places in the tundra glaciers are disappearing and the permafrost is melting, and with the burgeoning human population, more and more energy is being used and wasted. Up here, where so much of our power comes from coal burning, more and more mercury is filling the air, and falling down into our lakes and streams. Birds serve as our canaries in the coal mine, and when their numbers fall it should serve as a warning that something is wrong. But right now no one seems to take any of this as a call to action. Americans have become more and more complacent, or at least shell shocked, and we sit passively by as if waiting for some other shoe to drop. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and do something to restore our forests and air and water, before it’s too late.