Birds of a feather counted together

Not every one spends Boxing Day traipsing through the mall looking for bargains. Some Yukoners would rather spend it out in the wilderness counting birds. And they're not the only ones.

Not every one spends Boxing Day traipsing through the mall looking for bargains. Some Yukoners would rather spend it out in the wilderness counting birds.

And they’re not the only ones.

They are just some of the tens of thousands of volunteers across North America who participated in the National Audubon Society’s 112th annual Christmas Bird Count.

“It’s a wonderful way of people connecting with the landscape and with the life outside during the deepest, coldest part of winter,” said Cameron Eckert, a conservation biologist with the Yukon government and director with the Yukon Bird Club.

The Christmas Bird Count is an annual survey of the winter bird populations across Canada and the U.S.

Each community that takes part picks a day between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5 to do the count.

For almost four decades Whitehorse has been conducting it on Boxing Day.

“There is no better time to get out of doors and to count some birds than after a couple of big Christmas meals,” said Eckert.

While not every Yukon community chose to do the count on Boxing Day, people from Old Crow to Watson Lake all participated at some time during that period.

Although mostly “citizen scientists conduct the count,” they do collect valuable scientific information about bird population trends over time, said Eckert.

To ensure the data is accurate the count is rigidly standardized.

Each one is done over the course of one day within a 24-kilometre circle.

In addition, all the data on the effort involved – how long each participant is out and how far they walk or drive – is meticulously recorded.

Everything is compiled and published on the Audubon Society’s website.

“I know there’s probably a number of scientists that are using the Christmas Bird Count information to write papers about trends in bird populations,” said Clive Osborne, a semi-retired zoologist who has been participating in the Marsh Lake Count since it started in the early 1980s.

Over the years, Osborne has observed a lot of birds and seen their populations wax and wane, but the most consistent trend has been the weather.

“Definitely the climate has gotten warmer,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

That warming trend has had some surprising implications for bird populations.

“It used to be that all the swans left the Yukon in the winter, but now for the past five or six years a small flock has been wintering at Johnson’s Crossing,” said Eckert.

Back in the ‘70s all the major rivers in the Yukon would freeze solid, but that’s no longer the case, he said.

“Large sections of rivers are remaining open throughout the winter and it’s providing opportunities for some ducks, swans and bald eagles that are spending the winter,” he said.

For Eckert it’s not just about the birds.

“It’s a community event,” he said. “Generally for each of the counts there is often a post-Christmas potluck at someone’s house where people come together and share the stories of what they’ve seen.”

Contact Josh Kerr at

joshk@yukon-news.com