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Mike Jacobs Always in Season: Local Christmas bird count brings surprises

A total of 141 gray partridges were spotted, behind only the 1983 count of 150 partridges.

Hungarian partridges, also known as gray partridges.
Illustration/Mike Jacobs
    Mike Jacobs.jpg
    Mike Jacobs.
    Tom Stromme

    GRAND FORKS – Results of the Christmas Bird Count in Grand Forks have provoked some head scratching: Is it the abundance of one kind of bird that’s the big news? Or the absence of another? Or the appearance of birds that are regular here, but not in December?

    The count took place on the Sunday before Christmas, Dec. 18, 2022. All the results presented here were provided by Dave Lambeth, dean of local birders, who’s made arrangements for the count and compiled the results for the last four decades.

    First, the absence: Snowy owl. This is only the second time that snowy owls have been missed on the Grand Forks count, which has a history dating back more than six decades. The last miss was more than 50 years ago.

    Grand Forks County is regarded as one of the most likely places to find snowy owls in the lower 48 states, second only to Logan Airport in Boston. Some years, the owls are abundant – and you might have expected that this year because there were lots of gray partridges. The partridge is a menu item for snowy owls.

    A total of 141 gray partridges were spotted, behind only the 1983 count of 150 partridges.


    Two possibilities for this phenomenon present themselves. One is that partridges were abundant because owls were scarce.

    Another is that the partridges were just easier to see, since fields and grasslands are deep below a thick cover of snow. This forces the partridges to roadsides, where they eat spilled grain – and make themselves easier to spot.

    Getting onto rural roads was difficult on count day; many were impassable and areas usually checked for partridges couldn’t be reached. Of course, that only makes the total number seen all the more impressive.

    The greater mystery is why the snowy owls didn’t come. Snowy owls are known to move in response to food, both shortage and surplus. Perhaps the owls found sustenance farther north, and didn’t move into the Red River Valley as they usually do. Or they might have gone elsewhere.

    Both partridges and snowy owls are iconic pieces of the local birding scene, even though neither is “native” to the area. Snowy owls nest in the Far North. Partridges are immigrants, introduced to the Northern Plains in the 1920s.

    Snowy owls would have been familiar with partridges. The owls are “holarctic,” meaning they occur throughout the high latitudes of North America, Europe and Asia. Snowy owls would have been taking partridges on the steppes of Ukraine, say, as soon as the glaciers receded and the grassland flourished.

    As for the unexpected species: There were two each of them at least casual here. One, the eastern towhee, sometimes nests in the area, but rarely spends the winter. This year’s towhee was the fourth occurrence on a bird count here. The second, white-crowned sparrow, has been seen on nine previous counts, making this the 10th record.

    The eastern towhee is of special interest, because some birders have advanced it as the bird seen near Pisek, N.D., in early November. Those who found the bird identified it as a painted redstart, a bird of the American Southwest that has a history of turning up far from its usual range. The two species are superficially similar, but based on the descriptions, I’ve taken the side of the spotters rather than the skeptics. The skeptics always win in these cases, however, because there’s no definitive proof that the bird was a redstart.


    The appearance of a white-crowned sparrow is not so surprising. This is a bird of scrub woods to our north and east, and it occurs in good numbers in migration. This one chose to linger, as its conspecifics have done nine times previously.

    One other sighting surprised – and delighted – birders. This was a dark morph red-tailed hawk, the first seen on a Grand Forks count. Color morphs are fairly common in hawks; there are at least three recognized among redtails, and among rough-legged hawks, there are two. Both the lighter and the darker morphs of this species occur here. Unlike the red-tailed hawk, which sometimes shows up in urban settings, the rough-legged hawk is strictly a bird of open country. Four were seen on this year’s count.

    One other note of interest: A total of 25 cardinals were seen, the most ever on a Grand Forks count. The cardinal is a relative newcomer here. The first time 10 cardinals were counted here was 2018.

    Pine siskins and redpolls, familiar winter birds here, were among the absentees this winter. Goldfinches and purple finches, on the other hand, were here “in good numbers,” Lambeth reported.

    The total number of species seen was 45; of these, 42 were seen on count day and three were seen in the three days before and after the count.

    This was the 62nd count in Grand Forks, which means the tradition of counting birds at Christmas has been established here for about half the history of the Christmas counts, which began in the early 1900s as an alternative to annual Christmas hunting parties.

    Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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