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Annual Christmas bird counts are compiled across North America to show where birds, including chickadees, are spending the winter. ((Submitted by Roger Daigle))

Fewer birds than ever before were seen and heard in Algonquin Park during an annual winter count by volunteers.

"This year it was deadly quiet," said Michael Runtz, a naturalist and biology lecturer at Ottawa's Carleton University who snowshoed into the woods to participate in the count last weekend.

An average of just three birds per hour were counted by each party — the smallest number since the Algonquin Park Christmas bird count began 30 years ago, Runtz said.

"I had a total of 14 individual birds," Runtz said. "Normally I'd have a couple of thousand of birds by that time."

Annual bird counts are performed across North America during a three-week period around Christmas and compiled in a database run by the National Audubon Society in New York.

They show trends for where birds are wintering across North America, Runtz said. He estimates close to 1,000 people participate in eastern Ontario each year.

This year's counts weren't just low in Algonquin Park, but also in Dunrobin and Carleton Place, said Runtz, who takes part in two Christmas counts every year and co-ordinates a third, the Pakenham-Arnprior count.

Feeder treat

Michael Runtz recommends attracting birds to your feeder with this recipe for an alternative to suet:

Mix peanut butter, lard and corn meal, and quick oats together and garnish with seeds

Runtz blamed the disappearance of the birds mainly on a shortage of seeds they rely on for food. Those seeds are produced on a cyclical basis by coniferous trees such as pines and cedars, but usually some trees produce more seeds in years when other trees produce fewer.

"This year all the trees got together and said, 'Let's not produce seeds,' " Runtz told CBC's Ottawa Morning Friday.

He added that many seed-eating birds such as crossbills and redpolls are nomadic, and may have gone to New England, northern Quebec or the Maritimes.

"But they should be OK," he said. "They just go around and go with the food crops."

However, birds that don't migrate like that, such as ruffed grouse, may be hit hard by this year's conditions. The Algonquin Park area has been cold and there is deep snow.

"If they face a tough winter, they just tend to starve," said Runtz.

He suggested the shortage of food in the woods could make urban bird feeders busier this year.

"So I would say keep your feeders going," he said, "and when you see a rare bird, give me a call so I can come see it, too."