French hens? Turtle doves? A partridge in a pear tree?

Probably not. But Detroit Lakes' 30th Annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) should produce sightings of sparrows, blue jays, and woodpeckers aplenty, and maybe even a handful of owls and cardinals as well.

Every year since 1900, the National Audubon Society has mobilized thousands of volunteers in communities across the Western Hemisphere for its Christmas Bird Count — and since 1990, Detroit Lakes has been one of those communities.

"This will be the 30th time we've done it," said Nancy Henke, coordinator of the Detroit Lakes area count, which is Monday, Dec. 16, the same date as the count at Itasca State Park. Two days later, on Dec. 18, a similar event will take place at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge.

Each count includes birds sighted in a 24-hour period, though the actual events usually run from dawn to dusk. Last year's count included rare sightings of the Red Crossbill and the Varied Thrush.

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This Red Crossbill was one of the rarer sightings during the 2018 Christmas Bird Count in Detroit Lakes. A total of 41 different species were counted during the local event; this year's count is set for Monday, Dec. 16. (Nancy Henke / Special to the Tribune)
This Red Crossbill was one of the rarer sightings during the 2018 Christmas Bird Count in Detroit Lakes. A total of 41 different species were counted during the local event; this year's count is set for Monday, Dec. 16. (Nancy Henke / Special to the Tribune)

The Varied Thrush was another rare sighting during last year's Christmas Bird Count in Detroit Lakes; a total of 41 different species of birds were counted locally. This year's count takes place Monday, Dec. 16, and will include the area within a 7-mile radius of the Detroit Lakes-Becker County Airport. (Lee Kensinger / Special to the Tribune)
The Varied Thrush was another rare sighting during last year's Christmas Bird Count in Detroit Lakes; a total of 41 different species of birds were counted locally. This year's count takes place Monday, Dec. 16, and will include the area within a 7-mile radius of the Detroit Lakes-Becker County Airport. (Lee Kensinger / Special to the Tribune)

Nancy Henke snapped this quick photo of the Varied Thrush during the 2018 Christmas Bird Count in Detroit Lakes. The thrush was one of the rarer sightings of last year's local count; the 2019 event is set for Monday, Dec. 16. (Submitted photo)
Nancy Henke snapped this quick photo of the Varied Thrush during the 2018 Christmas Bird Count in Detroit Lakes. The thrush was one of the rarer sightings of last year's local count; the 2019 event is set for Monday, Dec. 16. (Submitted photo)

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In Detroit Lakes, the count includes everywhere within a 7-mile radius of the Detroit Lakes-Becker County Airport; the area is divided into approximately four zones, with teams of two or more going out and driving around their zone — including all the little back roads — and writing down every bird they see, or hear.

“If you can definitively identify a bird by ear, you can count it too,” Henke said.

The Itasca and Tamarac counts cover a similar area to the Detroit Lakes one — which is approximately 15 miles in diameter — but with their respective visitor centers as the focal point. Because local residents sometimes question why people are running around in the middle of winter, looking at things with binoculars, Henke said volunteer vehicles are usually equipped with a large “Christmas Bird Count” sign that they can display in their car windows, or hold up for the benefit of curious onlookers.

Even when people notice the sign, they often come up to them to ask what they’re doing, and that’s fine, Henke says, as they have no problems explaining their purpose. Though bird count drivers usually continue from dawn to dusk, she added, if a bird is spotted before sunrise or after sunset, either visually or by ear, those can be counted too.

And they also have plenty of volunteers who fill up their bird feeders, then sit and watch the birds come up to feed from the comfort of their homes, with binoculars in hand to identify as many of their fine-feathered visitors by breed as they can.

"You don't have to sit there all day," Henke said. "Just keep track of your hours, what you see and when."

In fact, volunteers can work for as little as an hour, or as long as they want; no experience is necessary, Henke added, though they do try to pair as many first-time bird count volunteers as possible with a more experienced partner, so they can show them what they need to do.

The volunteers count each different species of bird spotted, as well as how many of each species were seen — or heard — that day, Henke says. Over the next few days, the data is compiled and sent into the Audubon Society, to be added to its CBC database.

“If you can’t identify a particular bird, try to get a photo of it,” Henke said.

“You can send the photo to me, or to Steve (Midthune),” she added, noting that while they are each responsible for compiling different bird counts, they often participate in both. “If one of us can’t identify it, we’ll try to find someone who can.”

“Last year we found 41 species on the day of the Detroit Lakes Christmas Bird Count,” Henke said. “Our record is 43 species.”

What is the Christmas Bird Count, and how did it start?

The Detroit Lakes Area Christmas Bird Count has been held annually since 1990, which would make this year's count the 30th annual local event. Former Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge employee Betsy Beneke was the organizer for the first event, and the Lakes Area Birding Club provided much of the volunteer support.

All of these local events are part of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, which is a citizen science project organized by the National Audubon Society every year since Dec. 25, 1900, when 27 volunteers counted and identified about 18,500 birds, mostly in the northeastern U.S.

Today, counts can take place anytime between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. There is no fee to participate and the quarterly report, American Birds, is available online. Counts are open to birders of all skill levels and Audubon’s free Bird Guide app makes it even easier to learn more. For more information you can visit the website at www.christmasbirdcount.org.

“The Christmas Bird Count is a great tradition and opportunity for everyone to be a part of 120 years of ongoing community science,” says Geoff LeBaron, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count director, who first started leading the community science effort in 1987. “Adding your observations to twelve decades of data helps scientists and conservationists discover trends that make our work more impactful. Participating in the Christmas Bird Count is a fun and meaningful way to spend a winter for anyone and everyone.”

When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count provides a picture of how the continent's bird populations have changed in time and space over the past 100 years. The long-term perspective is vital for conservationists. It informs strategies to protect birds and their habitat, and helps identify environmental issues with implications for people as well. For example, earlier this year, Science magazine published a study using decades of Audubon Christmas Bird Count data to describe a grim picture: a steady decline of nearly three billion North American birds since 1970, primarily as a result of human activities.

A brand new feature for this year’s 120th Christmas Bird Count will be “CBC Live,” a crowd-sourced, hemisphere-wide storytelling function using Esri mapping software. This “story-map” will ask users to upload a photo taken during their Christmas Bird Count as well as a short anecdote to paint a global picture of the Christmas Bird Count in real time.

Last year, the 119th Christmas Bird Count included a record-setting 2,615 count circles, with 1,975 counts in the United States, 460 in Canada and 180 in Latin America, the Caribbean, Bermuda and the Pacific Islands. This was the 9th straight year of record-breaking counts. In total, 79,425 observers out in the field and watching feeders tallied up over 48 million birds representing more than 2,600 different species — more than one-quarter of the world’s known avifauna. Approximately 5% of the North American landmass was surveyed by the 2018 Christmas Bird Count.

Get involved

  • Volunteers are needed for all area CBC events. To sign up for Monday’s count in the Detroit Lakes area, contact Nancy Henke at 218-234-5680 or wchenke1@gmail.com; to volunteer for the Itasca count, call the state park office at 218-699-7251. To take part in the Tamarac event on Wednesday, contact Steve Midthune at 507-458-0317 or smidthune@loretel.net.
  • In Detroit Lakes, the count will be followed by a chili feed and potluck gathering at 962 South Shore Drive; call Henke for more information on what to bring and when.
  • Volunteers are also invited to attend a special meeting of the Prairie Woods chapter of the Izaak Walton League at 7 p.m. Monday in the Detroit Lakes Public Library. Bird conservation will be the focus of the Ikes meeting, Henke said.