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. 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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
And you can also watch the data change in real time as checklists are tallied. Just this morning the total number of individual birds counted has increased from 803,000 at about 8:00 a.m. to 922,000 at noon.
Like to get to know your birds better?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.