Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: It’s the Great Backyard Bird Count!

Three cardinals in a snowy forsythia.
Three cardinals in a snowy forsythia.

IT’S THE WEEKEND for the Great Backyard Bird Count, one of the largest citizen-science projects for species tracking in the country! If, as I am, you are concerned about all the articles citing declining songbird species and putting the blame on cats in general, especially stray and feral cats, this is one of the most important ways the numbers of bird species are counted, by citizen scientists who get involved and report their data—so get out there and count your birds! I’ve included my own photos of some of the most common bird species in the Eastern United States to get you started, photographed in my back yard, mostly through my windows and doors.

. . . . . . .

three black kittens
We’ll get those birds!

This annual bird count is an international data-gathering effort used to count bird populations and trend changes. Begun in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, the Great Backyard Bird Count was designed as a citizen-science effort and the first online project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time. According to the website which collects and displays the current and historical data, in 2013, the Great Backyard Bird Count had participants in 111 countries who counted 33,464,616 birds on 137,998 checklists, documenting 4,258 species—numbers that represent more than one-third of the world’s bird species.

Seven house panthers are helping me count this weekend though there’s been a hawk out in the trees today and the past few days and our numbers are down.

White-throated Sparrow.
White-throated Sparrow.

Right now, as spring approaches and birds are beginning to migrate, pair off and settle into their new summer homes, it’s a really exciting time to participate in this international citizen-science event, February 14 through 17. All you need to do is watch your bird feeder and take a few notes.

I can see from the number of people who reference my articles on backyard wildlife, backyard birds and bird feeding that many people maintain bird feeding stations of all sorts and enjoy watching, photographing and identifying the birds that visit their yard, neighborhood or favorite outdoor area.

chickadee
Black-capped Chickadee

I truly enjoy sharing my enthusiasm for the lives and welfare of these special little residents of our yards and neighborhoods, and I might also add I’m eternally grateful for the work they do in my back yard and elsewhere in constant and vigilant pest control—and in keeping generations of cats amused and active so long as I keep the bird feeders full. I’ve included photos of bird species common to most of the USA and Canada using my feeders, as well as my cats enjoying the view.

What is the Great Backyard Bird Count?

cooopers hawk
Coopers Hawk, a major predator!

The GBBC is one of several programs led by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, the Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada which combines the enthusiasm and knowledge of everyday people with these organizations’ scientific capabilities to track bird populations and activities. A few other annual programs are the Christmas Bird Count, Project Feederwatch and eBird. The participant simply follows a simple set of instructions in how to count, track and report your data and it’s added to the data from millions of other bird lovers, all serving the purpose of real science in biology and conservation:

1. Create a GBBC account.

2. Count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the GBBC.

3. Enter your results on the GBBC website.

mourning doves
Mourning Doves

That’s all you need to do! And when you enter you can also enter your photos in their annual photo contest, download a poster of the 10 most common birds you’re likely to see—and if you’re a beginner, this will be really helpful, receive a GBBC certificate for participating, and enter a contest to win bird-related prizes.

For instance, you choose a consistent period of time up to one hour to watch the activity at one of your feeders, and try to do this at the same time each time you observe, recording how many of which species showed up. Beyond that you can track other data such as the physical appearance of birds, unusual activity, information about your feeders and weather data.

downy woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker, male

Keeping the timing consistent helps to obtain data that’s easily compared from one observation to the next over the period of time you are observing. For this event, it’s four days in a row. For the Christmas Bird Count it’s a one-time event, though you can count in many different areas if you want, and for Project Feederwatch it’s for an entire season, November to April. Limiting the amount of time you watch helps to ensure you’re not counting the same birds over and over in one counting period.

Don’t have a feeder, don’t know your species, don’t have the time to count all four days—don’t worry

Northern Flicker
Northern Flicker

Birds are everywhere, and the data is compiled in so many different ways that it doesn’t really matter if you’ve never fed your backyard birds, or if you only know one species for sure, or if you can only participate in one portion of the count. Part of your reporting is to describe this. For instance, if you only know what a blue jay looks like, you give your count for the total number of blue jays, and also note that other birds were present but which you could not identify. All the data is gathered and segmented off into the area it can best be used taking into account your additional descriptive information.

What do you do with your data?

american goldfinch
American Goldfinch, male, winter phase

Well, in the olden days we actually used to keep track on paper and, get this—mail it in! How old-fashioned, and how did anybody get anything done? Now you can still use paper, or you can use a combination of paper and electronic submissions, or you can do it entirely on whatever device you use that has internet access, wherever you are.

goldfinches with thistle feeder
Goldfinches, thistle feeder

And you can also watch the data change in real time as checklists are tallied. The counting just began on Friday morning and by Saturday morning  the total number of individual birds counted was already over one million—check for yourself right now!

Like to get to know your birds better?

dark-eyed junco
Dark-eyed junco, “Snowbird”

I grew up knowing maybe four bird species well enough to recognize them when I saw them. But later, walking a trail in the woods, sitting in an abandoned pasture, hearing the birds sing as they flew about I felt as if I was a visitor to a land where the natives were friendly but I couldn’t speak the language.

male cardinal
American Cardinal, male

So I got Peterson’s Guide to the Birds of North America, and set about focusing on individual birds and flipping through the images to see what they were, then reading the descriptive copy for more details. It started out very tediously, but in a surprisingly short time I had gotten to know my local birds well enough and gotten to know my book well enough that matching the bird with the image and learning the details became as easy as finding a word in a dictionary, and suddenly I could speak their language and no longer felt like a visitor to my beloved woods and fields.

female cardinal
American Cardinal, female

I have several other identification books in addition to Peterson’s, but I purchased that one first because it seemed to be what everyone used and I also found it was referred to in articles about birds. It uses careful illustrations of birds, and while there are many guides that use photographs the illustrations are often much more clear in learning species identification. Getting one bird to pose for a photo at the right angle in the right light at the best distance to get clear details for a photo is nearly impossible—trust me! Trying to get all the birds in a book in the same way is a heroic quest.

song sparrow
Song Sparrow

A skilled illustrator will choose the pose and posture most universally identifiable for a species so that no matter what season or time of day you see your bird, even if all you see is a silhouette and vague color bands on the wings for instance, you’ll be able to piece together the details and identify your bird.

white-breasted nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch

In addition, the big three organizations mentioned above offer LOTS of information for regional bird identification on their websites and for download including illustrations, photos, posters, videos, recordings of bird calls, descriptions of nests and anything else you might need to correctly identify your chosen bird. The more information they offer, the more accurate your reports will be.

Don’t worry, be happy!

house sparrows
House Sparrows

Don’t be intimidated by what others know or what you don’t know, and don’t be impatient that you can’t tell a song sparrow from a chipping sparrow. We all started somewhere, and all of us who watch birds are somewhere along the spectrum from knowing, maybe, four birds to being able to identify by one note of a song.

red-bellied woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker

And most of all, have fun with it! If you go to the GBBC site, you’ll see tweets from humans on how they are participating and what they see, the counts for birds and checklists increasing, town and city names increasing on the list and photo galleries filling up with birdwatchers’ photos. It’s what got me involved all those years ago, even before we had the internet to use for access, reading a magazine article about Project Feederwatch and feeling as if I was a part of something much bigger than myself.

birds and squirrel at feeder
Birds at feeder with Buddy.

In fact, sometimes it’s even more fun if you get a bunch of friends together and compare your data or count together. You can all argue about what bird that was and how many there were, arrive at a consensus and have lunch on a lovely February afternoon.

And for even more help there is a Facebook group for Great Backyard Bird Count where you can share your photos and ask questions about species you see.

tufted titmouse
Tufted titmouse

Links

Great Backyard Bird Count

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology

Audubon Society

Bird Studies Canada

European starling
European starling

Resources

In addition to those listed below, find your local chapter of the Audubon Society or other outdoor organization such as the Sierra Club or National Wildlife Federation. Many animal shelters also have a wildlife rehabilitation program and carry information. In addition, most communities or regions have local environmental organizations that offer information and sponsor guided bird walks, and also participate in the bird counts as a group.

CAROLINA WREN
Carolina wren

Links around Pittsburgh, PA

These aren’t the only organizations around, but they are the ones I’ve used as a resource and many can be used to find chapter closer to where you live if you’re not in Western Pennsylvania.

Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania

Sierra Club, Pennsylvania Chapter, Allegheny Group

Venture Outdoors

The Widlife Rehabilitation Center of the Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania

Regional Environmental Education Center/The Outdoor Classroom

male and female cardinals in the snow
Male and female cardinals on Valentine’s Day–really!

And just for fun…

Read a little more about a sweet courting ritual between cardinals that I always see around Valentine’s Day in my post on Today entitled “Valentine’s Day, Photo and Poem”.


I am inspired by…
Blue Jays on Branches
Jammin’ Jay Blues, pastel © B.E. Kazmarski

I really do photograph, sketch and paint my birds all the time. You can find plenty of posts of my cats watching birds here on The Creative Cat, and also visit my photo blog, “Today”, to see some of my recent photos of birds in my yard and beyond.

Visit the Wildbirds page in my photography gallery to photos of birds, and in my online Marketplace visit the Originals and Prints Wildlife page or the Notecards Nature and Landscapes or Wildlife page to see some of my art inspired by watching the birds at my feeders. I’ve featured the note cards and notepaper series “Eye on the Sparrow” on my Marketplace blog, as well.

This year I had two series of holiday cards inspired by watching the birds in my backyard, “Greetings From Our Backyard Birds” and “Cardinals Brighten a Snowy Day”. Read about these on my Marketplace blog or find these and more in my Etsy shop.

And, unintentionally, you can hear them in the background of a few of the poems I recorded, even though one was recorded in early spring when the windows were still closed: “The Gift of a Morning” and “Wild Apples”.

Also read about my art, photography, poetry and prose inspired by my backyard wildlife habitat:

Art Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Photography Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Poetry Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Prose Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat


Read other articles in the category of Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat

All images used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in using one in a print or internet publication. If you are interested in purchasing a print of this image or a product including this image, check my Etsy shop to see if I have it available already. If you don’t find it there, visit Ordering Custom Artwork for more information on a custom greeting card, print or other item.


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© 2015 | www.TheCreativeCat.net | Published by Bernadette E. Kazmarski

Weekly schedule of features:
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Monday: Adoptable Cats, TNR & Shelters
Tuesday: Rescue Stories
Wednesday: Commissioned Portrait or Featured Artwork
Thursday: New Merchandise
Friday: Book Review, Health and Welfare, Advocacy
Saturday: Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat, Living Green With Pets, Creating With Cats
And sometimes, I just throw my hands in the air and have fun!

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Bernadette

From health and welfare to rescue and adoption stories, advocacy and art, The Creative Cat offers both visual and verbal education and entertainment about cats for people who love cats. From catchy and creative headlines to factual articles and fictional stories, The Creative Cat provides constant entertainment and important information to people who love cats, pets and animals of all species.

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