Christmas Bird Count adds meaning to season

Henry Brown, 12, and noted phenologist John Latimer during the 2017 Christmas Bird Count in rural Itasca County, Minnesota. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

I grew up in the Northern Minnesota birding mecca of the Sax-Zim Bog. Nevertheless, I learned surprisingly little about birds. I knew the basics — robins, chickadees and crows — but not much more. It took me a long time to finally appreciate the immense nuance of the natural world, the complex systems of life that surround us all.

A lot of that realization came from listening to the Phenology program on Northern Community Radio, hosted by longtime country mail carrier John Latimer. (As he says every week, “Phenology is the rhythmic biological nature of events as they relate to climate.”) When I lived in Hibbing, I gave few rips about the comings and goings of birds. But as I moved out to rural Itasca County, I started to notice the birds and plants John talked about.

While I’ve yet to become an expert, my son Henry has taken a big interest in the natural world. John spoke to his fifth grade class a couple years ago and Henry kept up his phenology notebook ever since. In fact, my son is using his notes to prepare a year-long “passion project” in his English class.

That’s how Henry and I found ourselves driving the back roads of Itasca County last week with none other than John Latimer himself. We signed up for the annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count. Very fortunately, they paired us with a real expert so that Henry and I weren’t stumped by these flying mysteries.

It was a delightful morning. There’s something to be said for completely changing your perspective sometimes. I was on roads and trails I’d seen before, but never with my eyes peeled quite this way.

Here’s how the Christmas Bird Count works. Volunteers across the country fan out across 15-mile “circles” centered around strategic locations. They record a complete count of all the birds they see within a week-long period just before or after Christmas. For more than a century, this tradition helps track bird population and climate trends all over the world.

While we would have loved to see a snowy owl or red-winged hawk, we were just as happy to see crows and chickadees. I saw a hairy woodpecker for the first time, and put a face to the song of the redpoll. It was a slower day of birding, but we saw 15 species nevertheless.

My favorite moment was us driving around a corner, intensely searching for birds in the trees, to see two young brothers fighting in their front yard. Even as a slow moving car crawled by, in which two passengers peered through binoculars, they grappled on, seemingly to the death.

It reminded me of census work. I wanted to ask the birds follow-up questions. How many in your household? Where were you born? What’s the address of your nest? But the birds wouldn’t cooperate. They were busy. The way we humans are often too busy to notice our surroundings.

The Bible doesn’t include anything about watching birds around the season of Christ’s birth at Bethlehem. Nevertheless, people of all faiths or none at all would benefit from counting birds one day a year. Look up. Listen. The seasons go on and on. We are one of many. Our human gifts leave us an enduring responsibility to keep this world. And it is a beautiful world.

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