Backyard Bird Count to Be Held Presidents’ Day Weekend By JOE EATON Special to the Planet

Tuesday January 31, 2006

The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count is a hallowed tradition and a valuable exercise in citizen science—but it’s not for everyone. Counts take place as scheduled, rain or shine, and shine is never guaranteed. As often as not, you wind up standing in a downpour, feeling the cold rain run down your neck, as you try to sort out very small, very active birds way up in a Douglas fir, or slogging through an alder swamp in search of whatever’s hiding in there, or bracing yourself against the winds off the ocean as you scope for seabirds.  

There’s an alternative for the less adventurous, though: This is the month of the ninth annual Great Backyard Bird Count. The GBBC, sponsored by Wild Birds Unlimited, takes place over the Presidents’ Day weekend, Feb. 17-20. The methodology is simple: You count whatever shows up in your yard and report your sightings on-line to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. There’s no fee, no registration, and you don’t have to be a birding ace to participate. 

Last year 52,000 counters tallied more than 6 million birds of 613 species—not half bad for February. A thousand participants supported their observations with digital photos. One backyard counter in Missouri, whose property apparently borders a wildlife refuge, reported 291,246 birds. I would bet that was heavy on the blackbirds, grackles, and starlings. 

All the numbers go into a searchable database at Cornell and become grist for the study of population trends. As with Christmas Counts and Breeding Bird Surveys, the Great Backyard Bird Count is an indicator of what species are declining or increasing in numbers, expanding or contracting their ranges, benefiting or suffering from climate change.  

It’s another window on the response of corvids—crows, jays, magpies—to the West Nile virus, to which these birds appear particularly susceptible. (I’ve been seeing anecdotal reports of vacant yellow-billed magpie roosts in the Sacramento area, where these endemic California corvids were once abundant.) It’s a way of tracking the explosive spread of the Eurasian collared-dove, which has made it all the way out here from its initial Florida beachhead. Gulf State counters may shed light on how wildlife was affected by last year’s hurricanes. And with global warming, how far north migratory birds like robins winter becomes a matter of scientific interest. 

“This project has become a major source of scientific information about North American bird populations,” says John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab. “It is a classic example of the vital role citizens and the Internet now play in understanding our planet.” 

In theory, GBBC counters don’t even need to leave the house: all that’s required is a window, and ideally a pair of binoculars and a field guide. I believe flyovers count as well as feeder visitors. It’s a far cry from some of the Christmas Counts in the far north, where miles of dogsled and snowmobile travel may yield, if you’re lucky, a single raven.  

For more information, or to view count data from previous years, visit www.birdsource.org/gbbc; or contact the Cornell Lab at cornellbirds@cornell.edu, (800)843-2473.