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Counting The Birds‚ ‘Til Christmas (And Afterwards Too)

Atatimeofyearmost arehuddledindoors, orflockingtoshopping malls,afewhardysouls setouteagerlytovisitthe fieldsandwoods.

They split up into small teams early in the day, travelling by car to scan the back roads for their quarry. Gathering at day’s end, they talk excitedly about what they saw, lament over what they didn’t, and tally their findings. There’s food and laughter and fellowship too.

They are participants in the Christmas Bird Count, a long-held North American tradition that’s marking its 111th year.

In Canada about 12,000 birdwatchers of all skill levels take part in these one-day excursions, always held over two weeks over Christmas, to record all the species and numbers they can find within small, designated geographic areas.

Co-ordinated here by Bird Studies Canada, and throughout the Americas by the National Audubon Society, the work of the Christmas bird counters was once dissed as the work of amateurs or “rum and egg-noggers,” but no more. Bird biologists now find this carefully collected long-term data invaluable for helping to assess the health of bird populations and guide conservation efforts.

It’s also rewarding for the counters themselves, knowing they’re contributing their eyes and ears to science, and it’s fun too.

“The thing about bird spotting is you never ever know what you’re going to see,” enthuses Richard Castro, a lifetime birdwatcher from Winnipeg who was taking part in his second count near Lockport last weekend. “Often, you’ll go out with a set idea of seeing something and you won’t see it. But you’ll see something else you weren’t expecting. And with more people, you’re more likely to see things.”

Between 8 a.m. and noon last Saturday, Castro and his team of two had recorded sightings of 132 birds; one downy woodpecker, four blue jays, four black-billed magpies, 67 black-capped chickadees, nine nuthatches, 14 common redpolls, and 33 house sparrows.

You can’t fudge the count to make up for what you don’t see. As the Audubon Society’s own guidelines clearly state: “Plastic pink flamingos must not be counted even if you are desperate.”


The bird count began at the turn of the last century. American ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer in the then-budding Audubon Society, was concerned about declining bird populations, and troubled by a Christmas Day tradition contributing to it. These were the side hunts, where teams of Christmas revellers would set out to shoot and kill as many birds and small mammals as they could, the winner tallied afterwards based on who had the largest pile.

Troubled by the carnage, Chapman proposed an alternative activity – to retain a competition but only identify, count, and record all birds observed.

It captivated a segment of the population from the start in the early 1900s, but remained a marginal activity until after the 1950s, when counts began in earnest. Today the Christmas Bird Count is gaining numbers of participants and counts each year across the Americas, with about 2,100 counts held annually by nearly 60,000 participants.

It’s done for “pure love of birds,” say those who locally lend their eyes and ears for it.

Lorelie Mitchell, a retired veterinarian, joined the Glenboro count, which has been held since 1987, in 2000 after moving back to Manitoba from Ontario. There, she’d taken part in counts since the 1970s.

“There’s always a core group that comes out every year,” she says of the half-dozen out and about in the Glenboro area each Christmas. Another 10 are local feeder watchers in the area.

Their count day lasts a full 24 hours, explains Mitchell. It begins Friday at 4:30 p.m. so they can include late-day and early-evening bird life sightings. Counters are out for the entire next day until 4:30, then gather for a potluck or dine-out meal. They tally their findings which can sometimes be as high as 500 per team if they’ve been lucky enough to spot large flocks like snow buntings.

Ian Thorleifson has taken part in the Minnedosa count for close to a decade. Also a self-described bird lover, Thorleifson says there’s always something fascinating to discover in the world of birds.

“One of the most interesting things from last winter was a group of robins, they must have numbered at least 80, who decided to overwinter in Minnedosa,” he said.

“You’d see them along the edges of the ice below the dam (at the Minnedosa spillway). They appeared to be feeding on aquatic insects.”

One bird all Christmas bird counters keep watch for, but seldom see nowadays, is the evening grosbeak, says Thorleifson. These are a small finch with bright-yellow and black/brown colouring.

“When I first started watching birds in the 1960s and 1970s, you could have 40 or 50 in your trees and it was just like having your trees in bloom,” he says.

“Now their numbers have decreased to the point where you hardly ever see them in southern Manitoba. We all miss them.”


Local farmers play a critical role in their count, Thorleifson says.

Most are very helpful by leading counters to spots where they’ve seen birds themselves, he said. That’s led their teams to spots where they’ve seen sights like about 100 common redpolls feasting on a few swaths of unharvested canola the farm left behind, or a white-throated sparrow he’s spotted overwintering in his machine shed. Feedlots are also good spots for birds where water and grain are ample.

Farmers’ other contribution is maintaining habitat.

“Shelterbelts are huge in terms of their value for birds. Spruce trees that are established and maintained are very, very important habitat for birds living in these big open areas,” says Thorleifson.

Wetland conservation is also “very, very valuable,” he adds. Sadly, counters say they too frequently see both disappearing as time wears on.


Counters’ numbers are growing each year, according to Bird Studies Canada officials who log anywhere from 10 to 12 new counts a year to a roster of about 400. About 7,000 Canadians participate in the over-Christmas data collections, says national bird count co-ordinator Dick Cannings. Another 5,000 are ongoing “feeder watchers,” submitting data on species spotted in their backyards.

Bird counts have been held in Manitoba since the 1960s, with 18 scheduled to take place here between December 14 and January 5. The dates for the counts are always the same each year and repeated within designated 24-km radius that do not change.

Counts are organized at the local level and there’s always room for more.

To find out more about the Christmas bird count or locate a bird count near you, log on to the Bird Studies Canada website and click on your province.

If you can’t find a count nearby or would like to organize one yourself contact BSC’s national Christmas bird count co-ordinator Dick Cannings at dcan [email protected]

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About the author


Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.



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