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Birders to participate in hemisphere-wide survey

This coming week marks the 107th time that birders will take part in what has become a hemisphere-wide bird survey.

Known nationally as the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count, or CBC, this event saw its start in 1900 as conservation was just beginning.

'Side Hunts' were a common holiday tradition then. Hunters would choose sides, go off into the fields and shoot everything they could carry home to see who had the biggest pile of fur and feathers.

After seeing dwindling numbers of birds, a fellow named Frank Chapman thought up an alternative tradition: Count the birds rather than kill them. That first Christmas there were 25 counts held.

The CBC really is a citizen science initiative. With over 50,000 observers participating every year, a wealth of data is compiled. From that information, trends in population and distribution can easily be examined.

1910 marked the first year the event took place in Fargo-Moorhead and this Saturday will be the 70th count. There were quite a few early years missed according to Bob O'Connor, a Moorhead resident and author of Birding the Fargo-Moorhead Area. The FM count has had a steady track record in recent years, however, even in the face of some iffy weather. While there have been years of no snow and temperatures in the 40s, December, as we are all well aware, can deliver some nasty conditions.

"One year we were out in a blizzard with a temperature of minus 20 and winds blowing 40 miles per hour," said O'Connor. He was covering an area north of Moorhead that year and by the time he turned around to head back home, the roads had all but drifted in. Struggling to town, he got on University Drive and "followed another car's taillights hoping the other driver would stay on the road."

There are specific guidelines for running the count. The survey area is a 15-mile diameter circle centered on a geographic point. It's up to the local birders to decide when to run their CBC but it must fall in a window 10 days prior to or after Christmas. On the chosen day, folks have 24 hours (midnight to midnight) to get out and tally up species and bird numbers.

A lot has changed locally over the years in terms of birds seen as well as landscape conditions. Housing developments have sprung up in areas where counters used to walk through fields or woods. Sixty-two Prairie Chickens were observed on the 1923 CBC. Good luck finding one these days. Moorhead's Crystal Sugar lagoons have been holding several different species of waterfowl during the last few counts. Another situation surrounds the American Crow. "For quite a few years there were no Crows," said O'Connor. "Lately we count them easily in the hundreds. They've either gotten hardier or the temperatures have gotten warmer."

FM area bird counters have seen 105 different species throughout the years. However, the number of different birds in any given Christmas count has never topped 48. Contrast this number with the 250 seen last year in Matagorda County, Texas. One can easily deduce that winter is not the ideal time for racking up species counts in North Dakota. We shouldn't complain too loudly however. I've been told there is one count circle in Alaska that typically gets just one species: Common Raven.

That said, an unwritten but shared goal among FM observers is to one day reach the 50-species mark. Is that aim achievable this year? O'Connor says there is plenty of waterfowl at the lagoons in Moorhead but certain finch species are probably missing. "Maybe we have a shot at the record, we'll see."