As we enjoy the holiday season, bird watchers will be marking their calendars with an additional yuletide activity – the Christmas Bird Count.
Interestingly, the count — now the longest-running and most important bird census in the world — didn’t start out as a wildlife-friendly activity. Prior to the turn of the 20th century, hunters engaged in a holiday tradition known as the Christmas Side Hunt.
They would choose sides and go afield with their guns, killing everything in sight. The group that slaughtered the most (all animals were fair game) was declared the winner.
In 1900, ornithologist and Audubon Society officer Frank M. Chapman proposed an alternative to this barbaric holiday tradition, a Christmas bird census that would count, not kill, birds.
The inaugural count, held on Christmas Day, had 27 participants recording 90 species across North America. Today, tens of thousands of volunteers around the globe take part in this annual event.
Central Alberta bird counts were conducted until the late 1970s by the Alberta Natural History Society. I was happy to work with the Red Deer River Naturalists and Kerry Wood Nature Centre to reinstate the count in 1986.
Since 2000, Judy Boyd has been the very able count co-ordinator, organizing counters and summarizing the data collected from 27 count circles across Central Alberta.
This year, the Central Alberta Christmas Bird Count will be conducted on Dec. 23. The count takes place between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Participants can watch feeders or count birds on foot, by car or other means of transportation.
It is important that Boyd knows who will be participating in order to avoid duplication. She requests that all counters call her at 403-358-1098. Information and data sheets can be found on the Red Deer River Naturalists website (rdrn.ca).
Of the more than 50 species that can be typically encountered on a Central Alberta Christmas Bird Count, the following five are my favourite birds of Christmas.
l Black-capped chickadee: These little cherubs are the most common, recognizable and beloved of all backyard birds. Year-round residents, they concentrate their winter activities around bird feeding stations.
l Bald eagle: The bald eagle population in central Alberta has increased dramatically in recent years, with many individuals staying year round because they can find a steady supply of food (i.e., waterfowl) overwintering in patches of open water at Dickson Dam and along the Red Deer River.
l House finch: House finches are recent arrivals in the province, with the first ones recorded on a Red Deer Christmas Bird Count in 2001. These finches are now abundant throughout central Alberta and can be found year round at bird feeding stations.
l Evening grosbeak: In the 1970s, Charlie Ellis, founder of Ellis Bird Farm, fed about two tons of sunflower seeds each winter to massive flocks of these birds. In the late 1990s, they virtually disappeared from Central Alberta. A sighting of an Evening grosbeak is always exciting for birders in this area.
l Redpolls: It has been determined that common and hoary redpolls (considered to be the same species by some authorities) are the toughest birds on the planet, better able than any other bird to withstand extremely cold temperatures. Redpolls nest in the Arctic tundra, then migrate down to “balmy” Alberta and beyond for the winter.
These birds tend to be abundant one year and not the next. This winter is scheduled to be an off year.
I encourage everyone to take a few hours on Dec. 23 to (ideally with a child or grandchild) look for and count our avian neighbours.
Myrna Pearman is the biologist and site services manager at Ellis Bird Farm. firstname.lastname@example.org