One of the great family-friendly activities of the winter will soon be upon us: the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), which this year runs from Friday, 12 February, to Monday, 15 February. The brain child of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this four-day long bird watching event is one of the easiest citizen science projects out there. Anyone, regardless of age or birding ability, can participate.
Citizen science programs have a long history at the Lab of Ornithology. Back in the mid-‘90s, I signed on to do my part for their wood thrush and golden-winged warbler projects. Those projects were quite involved, requiring participants to get aerial photographs of their research areas, determine acreage of irregularly shaped plots, measure the distance to the nearest water and roads…and this was all before setting out to look for signs of the actual birds.
The GBBC, on the other hand, is very easy and user-friendly. All you have to do is look for birds in your backyard. You can do this for as little as fifteen minutes, or for as long as your interest holds. You can do it for one day of the weekend, or record observations for all four days. You can watch for birds at each of your bird feeding stations (do you have more than one?), or you can choose to observe the visitors to just one tree or shrub. As for me, I will probably spend some time watching each of my stations (I have two, with a total of about twelve feeders), as well as the feeders at work.
Maybe you are unsure about participating because you don’t know a black-capped chickadee from a black-backed woodpecker. Not to worry. You can go on-line to www.birsource.org/gbbc/ and check out their simple bird ID pages. You can also print out a checklist for the most common birds in your region, which will help narrow down your options. For example, it is highly unlikely that a flock of northern parulas will be buzzing through any Adirondack backyard in February, so you won’t have to worry about telling one warbler from another.
One of the important aspects of your observations is recording the numbers of each species you see. This can be tricky, so the Lab has put together a really simple rule to help you out. Let’s say you decide to record the birds you see between 10:00 and 10:30 AM. You see two goldfinches at 10:01. At 10:15 you see twelve. At 10:17 there are 32. By 10:30 they have all flown away. How many goldfinches do you record? Thirty-two. In other words, to eliminate the possibility of counting the same bird(s) more than once, you only report the greatest number you saw at any one time.
Counting large numbers of birds can be a bit of a challenge. Some birders are very good at estimating how many are in a flock; others are not. I read an article once that said that it is easy for humans to eyeball numbers in pairs, threes, and fours. Fives get a bit harder, and anything above five is nearly impossible. So, if you can fix in your mind what five birds look like, then you can guesstimate how many of those fives you see in the flock as it shuffles and flits about. Good luck.
You will want to keep track of your sightings on a piece of paper, and when you are ready, simply go to your computer and pull up the GBBC website (see link above). Open the tab labeled “Submit Your Checklist” and follow the easy directions for reporting your observations. Afterwards, you can “Explore the Results” to see what birds other people found. Are you wondering where all the pine siskins are this year? Here’s a good way to find out. The genuinely curious can check out the results from past years as well.
The website is chock full of all sorts of interesting bird information. There is a whole series of activities just for kids, and there’s even a page dedicated to educators. For those who enjoy looking at really great bird photographs, there’s a gallery of photos taken by past GBBC participants. My favorite is a really funny photo of a very soggy orange-crowned warbler caught in the act of taking a bath.
This year marks the thirteenth anniversary of the GBBC. If you haven’t participated in the past, I hope you will take up the challenge and participate this year. Not only is it a great way to spend time with your family and feathered friends, but it also helps provide a snapshot of where the birds are across North America, a practice that has turned up some interesting trends in population shifts and declines.
And if being a good Samaritan isn’t enough of an incentive to get you to participate, check out the list of prizes the Lab is giving away. There are plush birds that chirp when you squeeze them, assorted feeders (you can never have too many), a bird camera (takes photos for you while you stay toasty warm inside), field guides, and much, much more. So, dust off your field guide, set a comfortable chair by the window, have your beverage-of-choice close at hand, and get ready to count.