For the Birds Radio Program: How to Count Birds

Original Air Date: Sept. 21, 1990

What’s involved in counting birds? (3:57) Date verified.

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Last Monday I was out at dawn counting birds at the Lakewood Pumping Station, up the shore a ways from Duluth. During my three-hour tour of duty, I tallied a total of 5,893 migrating birds, including 3,268 Blue Jays, 982 Cedar Waxwings, 712 blackbirds, 625 warblers, and various and sundry other dickey birds. That’s why we call this job “Dawn Dickey Duty.”

People often wonder what’s involved in counting birds. When a beginner sees a kettle of thousands of swirling Broad-winged Hawks, he just can’t imagine how anyone could possibly count them all, much less recognize them in the first place.

Identifying migrants does take practice. No matter how well you know your backyard Blue Jays and robins, the first time they fly overhead in a migrating flock, they’re going to trick you. After a while, you learn to sort them out, more by their shape and flight manner than their field marks. Blue Jays fly slow and even, with somewhat labored wingbeats. Their long, slender tail, rounded wings, and white underside clinch the identification.

Robins have a much faster flight, pulling their pointed wings back with each stroke. Their red breast is not noticeable in the air, but the white patch of feathers just below the tail is easy to see from a surprising distance.

Cedar Waxwings fly in big flocks. Their pointed wings and swirling, lazy flight style make them recognizable, and as if to show their cooperation, just about every flock announces itself by calling. Even though the waxwing song is quiet and high-pitched, it somehow pierces the consciousness almost every time a group of waxwings approaches.

Once you’ve got identification down, counting is the next step. Hawks are the easiest of all. They might look like tiny specks in the ozone at midday, but they’re still a lot bigger than warblers. Most hawks fly fairly horizontally until they find a rising column of air to carry them higher. When one hawk locates a thermal or updraft, it spirals upward on it, and pretty soon other hawks join it. These hawks form what we call a kettle, because in the midday haze they look sort of like a teakettle boiling over. Some are in front and some behind and all are in constant confusing motion, but fortunately, we don’t need to count them while they’re kettling. One by one they reach the equilibrium point where the air no longer carries them up, and they stream forward again in a manageable line. Counters keep track of all the kettles in the sky, and count each one only as the birds stream out at the top.

Some dickey birds are just as easy as hawks. Blue Jays are my favorite bird of all to count. They migrate in flocks of up to two-hundred birds, but they all fly slowly and stay in formation as they go. Grackles aren’t too bad for the same reason. Other blackbirds and robins are trickier because they zip alone quickly and often swirl about as they go, but we can usually count those flocks one by one. The worst birds to count are Cedar Waxwings and Pine Siskins. Both fly in flocks of 10–300 birds, with each bird shifting position in the flock as they go. And they often zip out of sight before we’ve even counted half. Then we try to estimate what fraction of the whole flock we saw, and multiply.

Counting birds is probably not for everyone. But it might be for you—you’ll never know until you try it.