It started as a day of wanton killing more than a century ago. Men and women took to the fields and forests to kill as many birds as possible in the name of holiday merriment.
Maria Duane, an avid Minneapolis birder, pauses as she recounts this bleak page in history, explaining that early conservationists commandeered the notion of an annual Christmas bird hunt, instead organizing an annual holiday bird count.
She and her husband, Steve, will help identify and record the winter bird population as part of the National Audubon Society's 113th annual Christmas Bird Count.
For the Duanes, the annual bird census is a two-decade tradition and a celebration of their shared passion. It's also a way to connect with others.
"Everybody has a bird story," explained Maria Duane. "Birds are such a common experience. There is something about looking to the sky. It's very freeing."
Outfitted with binoculars and a scope on a tripod, the Duanes volunteer for the north Minneapolis bird census. Volunteers will meet Dec. 15 at Springbrook Nature Center in Fridley. They will count all birds observed in a 15-mile diameter circle centered on the Coon Rapids Dam.
In years past, the Duanes scoured parks and along roadways. They slowly cruised through neighborhoods looking for backyard birdfeeders and other hotspots. They've become so enthralled in the project they skip the group lunch at the nature center so they can count all day.
"We've had the police stop us a couple of times driving slowly with binoculars," Maria Duane recounted.
One of her favorite sightings is the robin.
"I love the robin," Maria Duane gushes. "I love how it struts. I love the male's orange chest. They are so perky and full of life. They are not a bird that hides."
Naturalist Siah St. Clair coordinates and compiles the north Minneapolis count. What started as a conservation movement a century ago is now also considered important science.
"There is a lot of scientific significance to it," said St. Clair, executive director of Springbrook Nature Center. "This count is done all over the United States and in parts of the world at the same time period every year. It's become a massive citizen science project.
"There is data from all of those years. We can show how bird species have changed or declined."
The north Minneapolis bird census started around 1960. Back then, the area was largely farm fields. It's now neighborhoods. The north Minneapolis bird count illustrates changes in landscape, climate and conservation.
The number of species has remained about the same. "Last year we saw 42 species," St. Clair said. Milder winters mean larger wintertime populations of cardinals, robins and black-capped chickadees, St. Clair said.
Concerted conservation efforts mean more bald eagle sightings. Counters saw none in 1960 but recorded 19 last year, St. Clair said.
Fewer farm fields means declining populations of snow buntings and horned larks, known to forage in fields for grains.
St. Clair urges birders of all aptitudes to participate. Veteran participants with keen abilities to identify species are paired with novices still on the learning curve.
"I encourage people to take their cameras with them, and if they see a bird they are not familiar with to take a picture of it," St. Clair said.
Jane Shallow, who has participated in the holiday count, said it's a great opportunity for new birders.
"I am basically a beginning birder. This is the time of year I learn a lot, because I am paired up with an expert birder," Shallow said. "All you have to be able to do is spot birds, and you get a lot of help identifying them."
Claudia Egelhoff will be counting again this year. Egelhoff said she delights in the camaraderie and in the awe of discovering something she hasn't seen before.
"We discovered there are still swans on the Mississippi River," Egelhoff said. "It's really fun."
Shannon Prather is a Twin Cities freelance writer.