Down for the Count

While most Yukoners think of turkey as the true Christmas bird, there’s about 25 other species you can put on your list this holiday season.

That’s the average number of species recorded each year during Yukon’s annual Christmas bird count.

The count is a fun annual event that has an important purpose: to help record and track winter bird populations and trends in Yukon, and throughout the continent.

“It gives us the ability to track winter birds and monitor changes in populations about the birds wintering in the North,” says bird expert Cameron Eckert.

Everyone, from beginners to advanced birders, is welcome to take part.

During one 24-hour period, observers are asked to take some time to record – through targeted search areas, or simply at your feeder – the species and number of birds seen.

Started in 1900 in the U.S. (with counts in Toronto and New Brunswick), the 111th annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) officially runs from December 14 to January 5, 2011.

This longest-running wildlife survey will occur in over 2000 different locations throughout North America, the Caribbean and Latin America.

Yukon’s Christmas bird counts are being held this year in 11 Yukon communities (and Skagway). The first ones are on December 18 in Carcross, with Dan Kemble and Teslin, with Ben Schonewille. The last one is slated for December 29 in Mayo, with help from Mark O’Donoghue.

“We know their ranges are changing and we see more species staying here throughout the winter,” explains Eckert.

Climate warming and more open water has resulted in many more birds overwintering here, like bald eagles. “There used to be reports of one or two eagles in December, and now we have a dozen or so recorded.”

Similarly, warmer weather may see a drop in numbers of species like gray jays, who rely on cold weather to keep their food caches frozen. Birds of prey, which eat voles and mice, and snow-roosting ptarmigans and grouse are also affected by melting snow.

Last year Old Crow resident Birch Kuch launched that community’s inaugural count, which added a sharp-tailed grouse to the Yukon Christmas count for the first time. It’s not a species commonly seen in the southern Yukon this time of year.

In Whitehorse, numbers counted are usually slightly higher than in the communities because of waterfowl like mallards and mergansers and American dippers seen in open water near the dam. Well-established birds like house sparrows and pigeons also boost our count.

There are often surprises, too, like the American robin that showed up several years ago in Whitehorse by the Yukon River. (I saw it!) The weather that day was a balmy 10 degrees.

Commonly seen winter species include our Yukon bird, the raven, as well as chickadees, bohemian waxwings, and pine grosbeaks, several species of woodpeckers, and redpolls later in the season.

Rarer are mountain chickadees (with prominent black and white face stripes), boreal chickadees, and red-breasted nuthatches.

The information compiled in each area is sent to Birds Studies Canada which officially keeps the updated CBC records and database.

Participants are encouraged to contact their local area coordinator/compiler before count day, to make sure targeted areas are covered properly.

There are often scheduled count “walks” in specific areas, like the Millennium Trail, on Boxing Day, and other birding hotspots, including neighbourhood feeders.

And if you are travelling somewhere else for Christmas, why not join a local bird count? For more information on locations see Bird Studies Canada’s website:

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