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A female cardinal was spotted Sunday at Itasca State Park, the first ever recorded in the National Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Cardinal steals the show at annual winter bird count

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The star of the annual Christmas Bird Count was appropriately one well represented in holiday décor.

"A cardinal!" exclaimed the dozen volunteers who came to Itasca State Park Sunday for the annual National Audubon Society's 111th census that tracks bird populations and trends throughout the United States.

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The count runs from midnight to midnight on that single day. Some birds are tracked by sounds only due to limited lighting conditions.

The female cardinal was a first for the park area, which was reason for concern and celebration.

Some bird watchers blamed climate change; others attributed it to adaptation and change over time.

The female, rustier red than its male counterparts, seemed happy to munch on black oil sunflower seeds, unaware she was stealing the show from the blue jays, yellow finches, chickadees, nuthatches and red squirrels that prowled the pines.

Audubon and other organizations use data collected to assess the health of bird populations - and to help guide conservation action. It is the longest-running wildlife census, the group says.

The census entails a combined effort by feeder watchers and field observers. Some observers called in results from outside the park but still within the "Count Circle."

Sunday's count radiated six miles around the Mississippi headwaters. Field observers pay a $5 fee to participate.

Park naturalist and count compiler Connie Cox said many volunteers participate simply for the outdoor recreation aspect.

John and Marlene Weber of Nevis were trekking into the wilderness east of the park to track owls and birds such as crossbills that might eschew feeders.

They were euphoric at the conditions.

"Two years ago it was 27 below and after an hour it had warmed up to 18 below," John Weber observed. At 7 degrees Sunday, it was positively balmy.

Two other volunteers set off on cross-country skis to count birds in the northwest quadrant.

Others hit the trails, monitoring bird feeders, trees and the skies with binoculars.

Those observers can usually find family clusters of breeds such as chickadees, Cox said. In the deeply forested areas brown creepers are counted.

Cox, as the official compiler, monitored the numerous feeders at the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center and tallied up the results as field observers brought them in.

"We track trends and fluctuations," she said. "If there are continual declines in certain populations that would be a concern for those species."

But she said many birds are prone to irruptions - cyclical fluctuations in populations that are part of a natural cycle.

The annual bird count helps bird preservationists track and even predict those irruptions, she said,

Tracking migrant owl species helps observers determine what the rodent population is, and whether the northern owls are moving out of Canada for a reason.

Road kill deer and hunting areas provide habitat for other species of birds such as raptors and hawks that scavenge on protein sources, Cox said.

With forests, swamps, fields and lakes the Itasca count has "a natural dispersal of birds" and in warmer years, waterfowl get counted in the census. They're also counted in the spots that have open water year round.

"We get some late migrations on open water," Cox said. "And you can get an injured bird or one thrown off (its migration) course by a storm."

Some volunteers were checking the bogs near Lake Alice for snow buntings.

The cardinal "is a more southerly bird," Cox said. "They're more of a woodland edge kind of bird."

Whether the clearing of trees by logging or for farmland has yielded more habitat for cardinals is unknown, the bird waters agreed.

"It doesn't mean they can't move and adapt," Cox said.

The 2009 CBC found that more than half of 305 birds species in North America spending the winter about 35 miles farther north than they did 40 years ago.

That pattern is what worries some of the observers. If humans aren't creating more habitat cardinals like, affording them more seeds and grains, there can only be climatic reasons the birds are showing up. Birds are coming farther north as the climate warms up, researchers say.

And that could be a worrisome trend, bird observers maintain.

But most will have to wait years to determine if that is the case, in the meanwhile counting cardinals one by one at Christmas time.

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Sarah Smith
Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.
(218) 732-3364
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