Calgary's annual bird count shows highest numbers ever and more than 70 species

Calgary's annual bird count shows that Canada geese, mallards and magpies are doing well, as are house sparrows and chickadees.

Highest bird count in 69 years may be due to more birders and mild fall

Black-billed magpies are thriving. Local birders have counted 3,000 magpies in the Calgary area this year, as part of the annual Christmas Bird Count. (Pat Fogg/CBC)

Calgary's annual bird count shows that Canada geese, mallards and magpies are thriving, as are house sparrows and chickadees. 

The count for these common birds is at an all-time high — 58,000 birds, compared with 49,000 last year.

And that's good news for Calgary's growing community of birders.

Canada geese made up about half the total.

"We always get at least 10,000," birder Phil Cram, who compiles Calgary's Christmas Bird Count, told the Calgary Eyeopener, adding that 40 years ago, there were no Canada Geese here. 

Birder Phil Cram heads up the annual Christmas bird count in Calgary. This year, his birders compiled a list of more than 70 species. (CBC)

"But the Bow River stays open all winter," Cram said. "And so the geese have to sort of make the calculation: should we hang around here, where we've got a safe place to spend the night and we can go out into the fields and get to grain and come back for the night?"

Cram said that when the winter is mild, the geese tend to stay local.

"In years when we don't have much snow coverage — which we didn't have until yesterday — they're able to hang around. But other winters when that hasn't been the case, when they've had snow cover throughout November, we get fewer. But we always have good numbers."

Cram said the count showed 70 species of birds — the average is about 65 — and that is the highest in its 69 year history. But there might be more than one reason.

A Canadian goose nibbles on dandelions in a Calgary park in May 2012. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

"We had more people than ever before participating this year, which is good, and particularly people watching their feeders," Cram said. "So about 160 of them, and about 120 of us, out in the field, driving around, walking around. And that meant that a lot of the common birds got counted more than they usually would because we had more people out there."

For many Calgarians in 2020, bird watching became a pandemic hobby. 

According to many in the birding community, more people were home watching their own feeders and even venturing to popular spots like the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary. And more Calgarians took time to set up their backyards for bird watching tranquility.

Kris Brown-Schoepp has co-owned The Wild Bird Store for 23 years. Last week, Brown-Schoepp told CBC News that 2020 sales are the highest she's seen, up by approximately 40 per cent with nearly double the new clientele she'd see in an average year. 

Brown-Schoepp recommends getting feeders, and a birdbath for winter bird watching because water is difficult to come by in the winter, even more scarce than food for birds. 

Cram said the numbers showed 3,000 magpies and 7,000 house sparrows as well as a record high number of 328 flickers (a medium-sized woodpecker).

Among those, there were "200-some" downy woodpeckers and 47 hairy woodpeckers.

This hairy woodpecker was spotted in a tree in Calgary. (Mark Charlton)

Along with the high numbers, there were some surprises in the count this year.

"We had three new species for the count," Cram said. "And after 69 years, it's kind of difficult to add new birds. But we did add three this year, which is terrific. We had a Swainson's thrush in Lynnwood, a mountain bluebird by the Elbow River and most notably an Anna's hummingbird in southwest Calgary, which has been hanging out around somebody's feeder for many weeks."

There were also some misses.

"The ones we like to see here in the winter are prairie falcon [and] snow bunting, which can be in huge flocks — and there are flocks out there, but not in Calgary anymore," Cram said. "And no American tree sparrows, no ruffed grouse, which is always nice to get, but their habitat is kind of eroding on the edge of town."

There were also fewer finches, which Cram says indicates they headed south.

Chickadees are plentiful in Calgary all through the year. (Dean Finot )

"Overall, one of the disappointments amongst being a very good year was the fact that we didn't have very many finches this winter, and not many Bohemian waxwings, which are always kind of the star of the show," he said.

"And the finches are in big numbers in the U.S., particularly in the southeastern U.S. They came down from the Arctic, but they decided to go that way instead of this way, so there we are."

A Great Horned Owl gives on-lookers a moody glare at the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Cram said this year's count shows that Calgary is a leading habitat for birds on the Prairies.

And clearly, Calgarians are on board.

A few of the top numbers for Calgary this year included: 

  • Canada geese: 26,000.
  • Mallard ducks: 11,000.
  • Magpies: 3,000.
  • House sparrows: 7,000.
  • Chickadees: 2,000-plus.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener



With files from Helen Pike.


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