Great bird counting tradition continues

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The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) celebrates its 20th anniversary next weekend, Feb. 17-20. A joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society, and Bird Studies Canada, the GBBC is an opportunity for all to discover the wonders of nature we call birds.

Begun in 1998, the GBBC enlists birders of all skill levels to help estimate midwinter bird abundance and distribution. It has grown into a global event with participants from more than 150 countries last year.

Counting birds

Participants count the birds they see for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count, then enter their checklists at www.birdcount.org. The data helps compile a snapshot of bird populations that enables scientists to detect changes over the past 20 years.

“The very first GBBC was an experiment,” says Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Marshall Iliff, a leader of the eBird program (the online platform used by the GBBC). “We wanted to see if people would use the internet to send us their bird sightings. Clearly the experiment was a success!”

That first year, birdwatchers submitted about 13,500 checklists from the U.S. and Canada. Last year, GBBC “citizen scientists” from 156 countries turned in 162,052 checklists reporting a total of 18,637,974 individual birds representing 5,689 species — that’s more than half of all the bird species in the world!

Counters from the U.S. (118,171), Canada (12,132), and India (7,865) submitted the most checklists, while counters from Ecuador (836), Columbia (794), India (793), Mexico (711), and the U.S. (678) reported the highest number of species.

“The Great Backyard Bird Count is a way to introduce people to participation in citizen science,” says Audubon vice president and chief scientist Gary Langham. “No other program allows volunteers to take an instantaneous snapshot of global bird populations that can contribute to our understanding of how a changing climate is affecting birds.”

Weather conditions

Varying weather conditions so far this winter are producing a few trends that GBBC participants can watch for during the count. eBird reports show many more waterfowl and kingfishers remaining further north than usual because they are finding open water.

And always be on the lookout for wandering snowy owls. In the U.S., California birders submitted the most checklists (10,861), followed by Pennsylvania (8,705), New York (7,460), Florida (7,308), and Texas (7,020).

Ohio ranked 9th, with 4,955 checklists, and Michigan ranked 8th (5,109). The species reported on the most checklists were dark-eyed juncos (63,110), northern cardinals (62,323), mourning doves (49,630), downy woodpeckers (47,393), and blue jays (45,383).

The most numerous birds reported in the U.S. were snow geese with 1,405,349 counted, followed by Canada geese (1,166,166), and European starlings (624,267).

Anyone can participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count, from novice bird watchers to serious birders and ornithologists.

Participants count birds for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one day of the event or for several hours on each day of the count and report their observations online.

Places to count

Counts can be done anywhere from backyards to local parks, nature centers, or wildlife refuges. It’s easy, free, and fun. During the count, results are updated constantly on animated maps and colorful graphs for all to view.

This feedback allows participants to see almost immediately how their observations fit into the global perspective. Results from previous GBBCs are also available online.

In addition to counting birds, the GBBC photo contest has also been a hit with participants since it was introduced in 2006. Since then, tens of thousands of stunning images have been submitted.

For the 20th anniversary of the GBBC, the public is invited to vote for their favorite photo from each of the past 11 years in a special album they will find on the GBBC website home page.

Voting takes place during the four days of the count. For more information about the GBBC visit www.birdcount.org, or call 800/843-2473.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard 3 to 4 p.m. Sundays on 620 KHB Radio or online at www.khbradio.com. Visit www.drshalawaycom or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com.

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