A Christmas Bird Count and a Fat Corgi

A Christmas Bird Count and a Fat Corgi

Care to hazard a guess as to the number one spectator sport in North America? With Peyton Manning on top in the football world, you might think the Super Bowl. If you are an international sport lover, you probably wonder if it’s soccer. Car racing might be on your mind at this time of year. However, none are correct… the answer?

Bird watching.

In fact, as I write in my hut, Blue Jays dart in and out of the pine trees. The biggest bird news in my neighborhood? The arrival of a pair of Cooper’s Hawks this past year. It was quite the chirp on the block; our neighborhood just couldn’t talk about those Hawks enough. Sitting in our backyard, we’d watch those birds of prey swoop down and pick off small birds in flight – an explosion of feathers in mid-air.

It was May of last year just after we got our two pups, Andy – a corgi mix – and Zazu, a lab mix. I don’t know why I get so hung up on their breeds; really, they’re just mutts that we got for free. “Free” as in, ‘the little beasts chew up our deck and air conditioner wires and cable TV wires and cost us hundreds of dollars’ free; the same kind of free as when my aunt gave me her 1971 Plymouth Valiant. I did learn to change out ‘points’ in the distributor, a component that no longer exists in modern day car technology.

I was secretly hoping – wishing – begging if you will – that those Cooper’s Hawks had the taste for Corgi and Lab mix. You know like you might have a taste for Chex Mix at Christmas time. Alas, the Corgi was too fat of a little sausage to pick up and the Lab mix was too quick to snatch up before she fled under the deck. And, now, we are fully in love with them and wish them no harm (until I get the bill for fixing the air conditioner this spring).

It turns out there are a lot of people that bird-watch, if not for most of year, for one special day of the year: The Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The Count started in 1900 when observers and scientists became concerned about declining bird populations; the newly established Audubon Society proposed a new holiday tradition, a Christmas Bird Census that would count birds during the holiday season. During the first count, 27 dedicated birders held 25 bird counts that Christmas of 1900 which tallied 90 species on all the counts combined.

In our modern era, interested birders can sign up each November through the Audubon website. From December 14 through January 5, thousands of volunteers through the Americas brave snow, wind, or rain to take part in the effort. Ida County’s volunteer base is the Ida County Conservation Center at Moorehead Park. Our County’s count was held on December 20, 2015, and coordinated by the conservation board’s Don Poggensee.

“We get together with volunteers from our county and other enthusiastic bird watchers from other nearby counties,” said Poggensee who fuels the birders with homemade chili. “Our goal is to get a firm grasp of the bird population and how it’s changed. A volunteer does not have to be an expert. We enjoy making friends of all levels of interest.”

The group meets early in the morning, Poggensee disbursing maps and bird lists to those who have committed a day to the count. The map is divided into five areas within our county to make the watching efficient. After a few hours of cool-weather walking and watching, the group filled their bellies with Poggensee’s delicious hot chili and then discussed what they saw that overcast day in the low 40s. The birders counted 45 species and 4,840 birds.

Of those numbers, 1670 were Canada’s Geese, 1096 European Starlings, 397 American Robins, 336 House Sparrows, 285 Mallards, 192 Rock Pigeons, 138 American Tree Sparrows, 133 Dark Eyed Juncos, 125 Blue Jays, and 105 American Crows. I suspected that our Northern Cardinal would have made triple digits but numbered only 21 that day.

There were 37 other species noted in the double and single digits. As a red head myself (with a handsome tinge of grey), I’ve always had an affinity for the Red-headed Woodpecker (1 counted), but I didn’t know there was also a Red-bellied Woodpecker (21), Hairy Woodpecker (6), and a Downy Woodpecker (21).

Did you know there is a bird called a Cackling Goose (1 counted)? A goose cackles?

Only one Redwing Blackbird was counted; I’m familiar with them because they swoop at me when I bicycle on Highway 175, the dirty little boogers.  They come back in droves during the summer just to give me the death of tarnation.

Participant and former naturalist Pete Ernzen stated, “No particular surprises, changes come over years and that’s why these numbers are important to look at over a period of time. A day before our count, Don was able to locate a Saw-whet Owl, but we did not see it for the count.” Poggensee has been approached by birders from different countries to see the small owl in our Moorehead Park.

The Audubon Society says that the data collected over the past century allows researchers, biologist, and wildlife agencies to study the long-term health and status of the bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys, the CBC provides a picture of how the continent’s bird populations have changed in time and space over the past one hundred plus years. Most importantly, it leads to strategies to protect birds and their habitat, and helps identify environmental issues with implications for us grounded, non-winged folks as well.

With any luck, our neighborhood Cooper’s Hawks – which were both counted during the CBC – will grow in strength and size; our fat, little sausage of a Corgi isn’t getting any lighter. Those hawks had just better stay away from those teeth.

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