The 2009 Great Backyard Bird Count is a success


The highlights of this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count Feb. 13-16 are likely to include reports of northern species moving south in huge numbers. White-winged crossbills, pine siskins, common redpolls, and snow buntings only occasionally visit our latitude, but 2009 has seen an impressive southbound invasion by these species.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. This increasingly popular citizen science project is an opportunity for families, students, and people of all ages to discover the wonders of nature in backyards, schoolyards, and local parks, and, at the same time, make an important contribution to conservation.


It is also a terrific opportunity to introduce children to real field science. Participants count birds and report their observations online at

“The Great Backyard Bird Count benefits both birds and people. It’s a great example of citizen science — anyone who can identify even a few species can contribute to the body of knowledge that is used to inform conservation efforts to protect birds and biodiversity,” said Judy Braus, Audubon education vice president.

“Families, teachers, children and all those who take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count get a chance to improve their observation skills, enjoy nature, and have a great time counting for fun, counting for the future.”

Begun in 1998, the Great Backyard Bird Count enlists birders of all skill levels in this effort to keep common birds common. Last year, the “citizen scientists” turned in a record 84,784 checklists reporting a total of 634 species consisting of 9,787,367 individual birds.

“The Great Backyard Bird Count has become a vital link in the arsenal of continent-wide bird-monitoring projects,” said John Fitzpatrick, Cornell lab of ornithology director.

“With more than a decade of data now in hand, the Great Backyard Bird Count has documented the fine-grained details of late-winter bird distributions better than any project in history, including some truly striking changes just over the past decade.”

Get answers

The Great Backyard Bird Count 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?

To participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count, visit 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 required.

Results are updated hourly in the form of 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 Great Backyard Bird Counts are also available online.

Because the Great Backyard Bird Count reports its results in real time, scientists can quickly detect interesting relationships between weather and bird movements. This year, for example, it will be particularly interesting to see how far south the invasion of northern finches spread.

Lab director Fitzpatrick attributes these occasional movements to a lack of food on what are typically their more northern year-round ranges.

See photos

Pat Leonard, a spokesperson for the Cornell’s ornithology lab, says they also receive thousands of digital photos each year from all over the country. To see some of the best recent photos and the winners of the Great Backyard Bird Count photo contest, visit

In addition to results, the Great Backyard Bird Count Web site includes a variety of other useful birding information — vocabulary, photos, bird watching and bird feeding tips, and vocalizations. It’s a valuable resource for all birders, especially students.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a terrific way for individuals, families, schools, and community groups to contribute to a better understanding of birds.


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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 on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.



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