GRAND FORKS, N.D. — It all started in 1900, when a group of conservationists who were concerned about declining bird populations came up with the idea of counting birds during the holidays rather than hunting them.
So says the National Audubon Society in describing the history of the Christmas Bird Count, which has become a holiday tradition across North America.
The annual Christmas Bird Count season officially gets underway Wednesday and continues through Jan. 5. As part of the event, counts are set up within specified 15-mile circles, and teams of birders set out to tally all of the birds they can within the count circle.
“Prior to the turn of the 20th century, hunters engaged in a holiday tradition known as the Christmas ‘Side Hunt,’ ” Audubon says on its website. “They would choose sides and go afield with their guns — whoever brought in the biggest pile of feathered (and furred) quarry won.”
Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count — CBC, for short — now is the longest-running wildlife census in the world, and birders who participate help the conservation group track long-term changes in bird populations.
Grand Forks birder Dave Lambeth, who compiles data from the Grand Forks count for the National Audubon Society, said the survey is especially useful in tracking winter birds.
Grand Forks’ bird count dates to 1961.
“There’s just not any other data around that’s even comparable for winter,” Lambeth said. “Even though there’s a fair amount of noise in the data depending on how many people participate and weather conditions, it’s still the best indication we have of what’s going on.”
This year’s Grand Forks count is set for Dec. 18, and birders should meet at 7 a.m. at the Northside Cafe, 3450 Gateway Drive. A noon rendezvous is set for the Subway-Caribou-Little Caesars complex at the corner of Washington Street and 24th Avenue South, and a day-ending “Tally Rally” begins at 5 p.m. at the home of Pat and Russ Wilber, 2409 Chestnut St.
About the GF count area
The Grand Forks count circle is centered on U.S. Highway 2 about a mile east of the airport and includes Kellys Slough National Wildlife Refuge, parts of the Turtle River and the Red River. Frank Kelley, a UND art professor who had a minor in ornithology from the University of Minnesota, started the Grand Forks CBC and established the count circle, Lambeth said.
“As I have said a number of times, I can’t think of a better position for the circle,” Lambeth said. “He organized and compiled the count for about 25 years and continued as a field participant for most of the years thereafter until 2012.”
Kelley died Nov. 9 in Fargo at the age of 80.
Last year’s Grand Forks CBC drew 26 birders who tallied 57 species, including 2,870 Canada geese. Lambeth said the Grand Forks count only began passing the 50-species mark in the past five years or so.
“It used to be getting into the 40s was pretty good,” he said. “Now, we kind of expect to get 50 or more species, and that’s without a real noticeable increase in the number of counters. I think it really is reflecting a change of birds rather than a change in the number of counters.”
Common ravens have become more common, Lambeth said, moving west from northern Minnesota. Cardinals also have become more regular.
Lambeth said the recent onset of cold, snowy weather could change the makeup in bird species observers tally this year. How it changes, though, is anyone’s guess, he added.
“With rougher weather and food sources getting covered up, especially in the country, birds will work their way into town and find feeders,” he said.
Goldfinches already have been reported in numbers, Lambeth said; redpolls also show up some years during the count.
“They don’t show up in numbers every year,” Lambeth said. “They tend to show up in numbers about every other year. We’ll see on that one.”
According to Audubon, last year’s 116th Christmas Bird Count included a record-setting 2,505 count circles: 1,902 counts in the U.S, 471 in Canada and 132 in Latin America, the Caribbean, Bermuda and the Pacific Islands.
In total, nearly 77,000 observers tallied more than 58 million birds representing 2,607 different species, Audubon said.
Bird count schedule
Here’s a listing of Christmas Bird Counts scheduled across the region:
- Thursday: Glacial Ridge and Rydell national wildlife refuges. Meet at 8 a.m. at the Rydell National Wildlife Visitor Center, 17788 349th St. S.E., Erskine, Minn. People new to birding will be teamed up with experienced birders to search areas by vehicle and/or on foot. A midday potluck will be provided, courtesy of refuge staff. Please sign up by Wednesday by emailing Lisa Wiersma at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling Rydell refuge at (218) 687-2229, ext. 10.
- Saturday: Crookston area Christmas Bird Count. Info: Tom Feiro, email@example.com.
- Saturday: Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge. Meet at 8 a.m. at the American Legion in Middle River, Minn. Novice birders will be teamed up with experienced watchers. Midday potluck, courtesy of Agassiz refuge, set for 11:30 a.m. at the Legion. Signup by Wednesday requested. Info: Lynda Knutsen, (218) 449-4115 ext 202.
- Saturday: Lake Bemidji State Park, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Meet at the Visitor Center. Info: John Fylpaa, (218) 308-2300 or by email at John.firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Dec. 18: Grand Forks. Meet at 7 a.m. at Northside Cafe, 3450 Gateway Drive. Info: Dave Lambeth, email@example.com.
- Dec. 18: Itasca State Park, 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Meet between 7:30 and 8 a.m. at the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center lobby. Info: (218) 699-7259.
- Dec. 29: Beltrami Island State Forest. Info: Martin Kehoe, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Dec. 30: Baudette, Minn. Info: Martin Kehoe, email@example.com.
- Dec. 31: Roseau, Minn. Info: Pat Roth, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Jan. 1: Turtle River State Park, 3084 Park Ave., Arvilla, N.D. Official count from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and participants should meet at the Visitor Center classroom. Birding Basics hike from 10 to 11 a.m., meet at the Chalet. Birders participating in the official count can come and go as they please. Vehicle pass required. Info: (701) 594-4445.
For more information on Christmas Bird Counts, go to audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count.