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Count your blessings and your birds

Trumpeter swans fly over a corn field north of Perham Monday afternoon. Michael Johnson/Perham Focus

Prior to the turn of the 20th century it was tradition for many to enjoy the Christmas season by going for a bird shoot called a "Side Hunt." Shooters would take sides, and whoever came back with the most birds of any kind was the winner. As you can guess, the real losers were the birds.

This year marks the 118th Audubon Christmas Bird Count. This count was formed to turn away from shooting birds and instead simply look for them and count them.

Bird counts will be held Dec. 14 through Jan. 5 at sites throughout the U.S., Canada, and many other countries in the Western Hemisphere this year.

Much like how that original Christmas Bird Count started, one local birder, Steve Millard of Fergus Falls, went from hunter to bird watcher. In doing so, he has found a greater appreciation and understanding of the feathered types.

"Over the years I've taken trips across the country to go bird watching," Millard said.

He considers Minnesota a great place to see birds.

"Looking at the wildfires and hurricanes, I'm happy where I am," Millard said on a cold December day.

With Christmas just weeks away, he's gearing up as the head compiler of the Fergus Falls and Battle Lake area bird counts.

He says the counts are a good way for regular birders to get out and see what's around and talk with other birders about their finds. It's also a good way for people looking to get into bird watching to learn a thing or two.

"I think too many people are too out of touch with nature," Millard added. "They don't realize how quickly we are losing what we have."

Millard encourages young and old to get out and give it a try. No license is needed. Just a field guide and binoculars will get you started.

Another avid birder, Matthew Mecklenburg, a land steward with the Nature Conservancy in Glyndon, wanted to grow the birding options in the Pelican Rapids area, so he helped start a new count circle there this year.

"There is great bird habitat in the Pelican Rapids area, so I went through the process to get this new count started," Mecklenburg said.

He also started the count on Bluestem Prairie in 2007 and participates in Audubon activities out of Fargo-Moorhead.

He said more people should get involved for obvious benefits to themselves and the birds.

"For many reasons; you can be involved in the longest running and largest citizen science effort, you get to meet many interesting people, it is a wonderful learning opportunity, anyone is welcome, it's a great excuse to get outside and it's a lot of fun!" Mecklenburg said by email.

The count, above all, is meant to shed light on the state of the bird populations in our region, state, country and world.

"All this data really does tell us what's happening with populations of birds," Millard said.

How it works

In Minnesota, count circles 15 miles in diameter are designated, and volunteers gather to spend 24 hours searching the area. Most searching is done by automobile, but if weather allows, beating the bush is an important part of it too. Once the day is done, species viewed and count amounts are tallied by a volunteer compiler who plugs all the bird info into the Minnesota Bird Count website at

The information gathered at a site over a 24-hour period is summarized by scientists to gain insight into bird populations and patterns. Volunteers of all skill levels are needed.

To get involved, visit to view a map of all active search circles in Minnesota.

If you would like to participant or have questions about the count in Fergus Falls (Dec. 16) or Battle Lake (Dec. 31) contact head compiler Steve Millard at 218-736-7411. To take part in the new Pelican Rapids bird count contact Matthew Mecklenburg at 218-498-2679 or


Bird irruption coming?

We may be in for another snowy owl irruption (influx of a species to an area where they normally don't reside) according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The last irruption occurred in 2013 and many of the preceding factors have been observed this year. According to Project SNOWstorm, a snowy owl organization that developed following the 2013 irruption, there was a thriving population of lemmings in the arctic tundra this year, followed by a strong breeding season for the owls. In addition, about 200 snowy owls have already been observed in the Upper Midwest and Northeastern United States.