Magpies love Yellowknife, reveals Christmas bird count

Bird enthusiasts spotted a record-breaking number of magpies, according to the count’s compiler, Bob Bromley, who said the previous record was 80.

Bird enthusiasts spotted 91 black-billed magpies in the city on Saturday

Magpie numbers in Yellowknife have been growing over the years, at least partly due to the availability of dog food at kennels, says bird biologist Bob Bromley. (Judith Gosse)

Yellowknifers who think they're seeing more magpies around lately aren't imagining things.

Keen-eyed bird enthusiasts spotted 91 black-billed magpies Saturday during the 2018 Christmas bird count.

It's a record-breaking number, according to the count's compiler, Bob Bromley, who said the previous record was 80.

Bromley, who is also a bird biologist, says the magpie population started to grow in Yellowknife when the birds found a reliable source of food to scavenge — from sled dogs.

It used to be that people would go out and see how many different kinds of birds they could shoot.- Bob Bromley , bird biologist and bird count compiler

"The big kennels we have now … magpies are very good at stealing food," he said.

Bromley said magpies are probably also taking advantage of bird feeders around town.

These ravens are eating gravel off a road in Yellowknife. Bird biologist Bob Bromley says ravens don't have teeth, so the gravel goes into the gizzards and helps digest food. (Submitted by Bob Bromley)

Of course, they are far from the only birds that do that. But what some might find surprising is those bird feeders might be keeping migratory birds fat and happy through Yellowknife winters. 

Sometimes, individual birds that usually fly south decide to overwinter in the city because they've found a reliable food source and a safe place to take shelter from bitter winds, which is why counters were able to spot the odd European starling or dark-eyed junco.

"It's so important [that] people who do feed birds don't stop halfway through the winter when they go for Christmas holidays or something," said Bromley. "[They should] make sure they get somebody to continue feeding, otherwise they can really leave the birds vulnerable."

Other notable results from this year's bird count include a paltry 44 willow ptarmigan sightings, which indicates numbers are reaching a 10-year low. Bromley expects ptarmigan numbers to start climbing again in coming years.

The common raven made up the lion's share of spottings as usual, with the total reaching a whopping 2,500 of the 2,959 birds spotted. An eagle-eyed birder also caught sight of a common goldeneye duck, thanks to a small bit of open water left on the Yellowknife River.

From shooting to counting

Yellowknife's Christmas bird count is one of hundreds of counts across the Americas. The count, hosted by the Audubon Society, began in 1899.

It's always been a tradition for naturalists, but originally, the goal wasn't simply to count birds.

"It used to be that people would go out and see how many different kinds of birds they could shoot," said Bromley.

"It became popular and so they were probably starting to depress local populations of birds and so on, and they realized that it probably wasn't the right thing to be doing — shooting small birds that they couldn't really eat."

But Bromley says the original participants weren't simply shooting for target practice. They would save the carcasses and draw them, for science.

"That was a big thing to do in those days, and they were still discovering species and so on," he said.

Yukon Bird Club president Cameron Eckert says bald eagle sightings this year have 'shattered' previous records. (Hancock Wildlife Foundation)

Yukon sees bald eagle bounty

Many communities across Yukon also hosted a bird count over the weekend, including Whitehorse, which saw a record number of bald eagle sightings.

Yukon Bird Club president Cameron Eckert says people saw almost 80 of them.

"People are now very used to seeing bald eagles around in the winter, but that number even still was impressive," he said.

Owls also made appearances on count day across the territory, with a northern pygmy owl showing up right downtown in Whitehorse.

Eckert describes the bird as a "tiny little owl" about the size of a fist.

"There's maybe about 10, 12 Yukon records [of sightings] in total, so that was a first-ever for a Yukon Christmas bird count," he said.

"Very exciting little bird to see."

With files from Sandi Coleman


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