The great backyard bird count continues

On Feb. 12-15, birders all across the country will participate in the 13th annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society.

This popular citizen science project is an opportunity for families, students, and people of all ages to discover the world of wild birds in backyards, schoolyards, parks, and refuges.

The beginning. Begun in 1998, the GBBC enlists birders of all skill levels in an effort to keep common birds common. Originally the idea was to take a snapshot of winter bird populations in backyards across America. But birders quickly expanded the annual census to include their favorite parks, refuges, and natural areas.

Last year, GBBC “citizen scientists” turned in a record 94,165 checklists reporting a total of 620 species consisting of more than 11 million individual birds.

“Taking part in the Great Backyard Bird Count is a great way to get outside with family and friends, have fun, and help birds — all at the same time,” said Audubon Education Vice President Judy Braus. “Even if you can only identify a few species, you can provide important information that enables scientists to learn more about how the environment is changing and how that affects our conservation priorities.

Intensive monitoring. “The GBBC is a perfect first step towards the sort of intensive monitoring needed to discover how birds are responding to environmental change,” said Janis Dickinson, the director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab. “Winter is such a vulnerable period for birds, so winter bird distributions are likely to be very sensitive to change.

“There is only one way — citizen science — to gather data on private lands where people live. GBBC has enormous potential both as an early warning system and in capturing and engaging people in more intensive sampling of birds across the landscape.”

Bird populations are dynamic; they fluctuate from year to year, so long term population data is invaluable.

For example, 2009 GBBC data highlighted a huge southern invasion of pine siskins across much of the eastern United States. Participants counted 279,469 pine siskins on 18,528 checklists, as compared to the previous high of 38,977 birds on 4,069 checklists in 2005. Failure of seed crops farther north caused the siskins to move south to find their favorite food.

Answering questions. The GBBC also helps answer basic questions such as: How do winter conditions influence bird populations? Where are the winter finches and other irruptive species? Is global climate change affecting winter bird populations?

On the www.birdcount.org Web site, participants can explore real-time maps and charts that show what others are reporting during the count. The site has tips to help identify birds and special materials for educators.

Participants may also enter the GBBC photo contest by uploading images taken during the count. Many images will be featured in the GBBC Web site’s photo gallery. All participants are entered in a drawing for prizes that include bird feeders, binoculars, books, CDs, and many other great birding products.

Participation. To participate in the GBBC, log on to the GBBC web site, www.birdcount.org, and follow the instructions.

Counters simply tally the highest number of each bird species seen at one time (to ensure birds are not counted more than once), and keep track of the time spent counting. The time invested can be as little as 15 minutes. Or you can devote the entire long weekend to counting birds.

To simplify the process, you can click on your state for a checklist of the most frequently reported birds in your area. There is no fee to participate.

Anyone can take part in the GBBC, from novice birdwatchers to expert birders. Participants count birds for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one or more days of the event and report their sightings online at www.birdcount.org.

Results are updated hourly on animated maps and colorful graphs for all to view. This near-instant feedback allows participants to see almost immediately how their observations fit into the continental perspective. Results from previous GBBCs are also available online.

Information. For more information about the GBBC or the Lab of Ornithology, visit www.birdcount.org, or call 800-843-2473.

About the Author

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. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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