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Cache Valley Christmas Bird Count provides valuable data on avian populations

A small owl rests in a cedar tree, partially obscured by vegetation.
Michelle HN
A northern saw-whet owl rests in a cedar tree.

It’s well before dawn and I’ve found myself trudging up a snowy canyon north of Logan, Utah. With my headlamp turned off, I can barely see my icy fingers inches from my face. This isn’t a hiking trip gone awry—I’m out with a couple of friends listening for owls as part of the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

We played recordings of owl hoots, in the hopes that owls in the area will respond to our playback, telling us what species, and how many of each, are living in the canyon.

Van Tatenhove: “If you keep your headlamp on I'll do another owl call, and we can see if we can see any fly across.”

The Christmas Bird Count has roots going back to 1900, when ornithologist Frank Chapman tasked fellow birders to count birds over the holiday season as an alternative to Christmas bird hunts, amid concerns of shrinking bird populations. Chapman’s actions spawned an annual tradition where thousands of volunteers of every age and birding ability come together to count birds across the U.S. and Canada each winter, be it from the comfort of their living rooms, or the snowy countryside.

Rory Eggleston and Ryan Helcoski, both PhD students in USU’s Wildland Resources department, joined me for owling. To collect our data, we braved deep snow and, given an unseasonably warm December, a surprising amount of snow melt.

Van Tatenhove: “How are you feeling? Are you warm?”
Eggleston: “Remarkably warm. I mean you work up a sweat so it's only when you stop that the real danger sets in.”
Van Tatenhove: “The frostbite…”

Helcoski: “You know seeing the stars and then the sun's just starting to come up now and it's really beautiful.”
Eggleston: “Crossing the streams was not the best…”
Helcoski: “No, I did not like crossing streams, but it was pretty.”

After all of that work, we were rewarded with a single owl encounter.

Eggleston: “We heard a northern saw-whet owl, which are very, very small, cute owls…and there was one of them.”

Fortunately, low counts and even zeros still give scientists important information.

After a cup of strong coffee and some team member shuffling, we continued our counts into the day. Here, we were focused on counting all birds, not just owls.

Van Tatenhove: “It’s a robin…two robins…three robins.”
Courtney Check: “Oooh, hawk, a red-tailed hawk!”

Some birds were exceedingly common in the count sector we were assigned. Eggleston and Check, a PhD student visiting from Georgia, helped me tally species as we peered through our binoculars.

Van Tatenhove: “How many starlings do you think we have for the day?”
Eggleston: “Definitely over 100 at this point.”
Check: “Yeah, easily over 100.”

Some birds, however, were few and far between.

Van Tatenhove: “Were those flyovers earlier juncos?”
Eggleston: “Yeah, the big group, I think.”

Juncos, colloquially called “snowbirds”, are small gray sparrows that are seen commonly in the winter months.

Their population is estimated at a whopping 220 million individuals, but it’s seen a decline of over 35% since the 1960s. Population declines of this magnitude, even for common species like the junco, are troubling. To make matters worse, tying population declines to their underlying causes is a difficult task for scientists without high-quality data. It seems for the junco, a whole host of troubles, including predation by outdoor cats, collisions with windows, light pollution and pesticides may be causing their population declines.

Fortunately, annual bird counts like the Christmas Bird Count provide invaluable information about what species are doing well, and those that are dwindling toward extinction.

In Cache Valley alone, volunteers counted an impressive 104 bird species this year. In the coming weeks, data collected across the country will be sent off to the National Audubon Society, where researchers will use the data to identify and protect struggling bird species well into the future.

Stay updated about next year’s Christmas Bird Count at

Aimee Van Tatenhove is a science reporter at UPR. She spends most of her time interviewing people doing interesting research in Utah and writing stories about wildlife, new technologies and local happenings. She is also a PhD student at Utah State University, studying white pelicans in the Great Salt Lake, so she thinks about birds a lot! She also loves fishing, skiing, baking, and gardening when she has a little free time.