By Trevor Busch
Ever wanted the chance to contribute to the study of ornithology? Show how much you care about birds by counting them for the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). The 18th annual count is taking place February 13-16.
Anyone anywhere in the world can count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count and enter their sightings at http://www.birdcount.org. The information gathered by tens of thousands of volunteers helps track changes in bird populations on a massive scale. The GBBC is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society with partner Bird Studies Canada.
“Bird populations are constantly changing,” said Dick Cannings of Bird Studies Canada. “No single scientist or team of scientists could hope to keep track of the complicated patterns of movement of species around the world. The information from GBBC participants, combined with other surveys, helps scientists learn how birds are affected by environmental changes. The information you send in can provide the first sign that individual species may be increasing or declining from year to year. Data gathered over many years help highlight how a species’ range may be expanding or shrinking. A big change, noted consistently over a period of years, is an indication that something is happening in the environment that is affecting the birds and that should receive attention. GBBC information also allows us to look at what kinds of birds inhabit different areas, such as cities and suburbs or natural habitats.”
Birdwatchers fell in love with the magnificent Snowy Owl during the last count when the birds were reported in unprecedented numbers across southeastern Canada, the Great Lakes states, the Northeast, and down the Atlantic Coast. Expect Snowy Owls to show up in higher numbers during this year’s GBBC, too.
“It’s called an ‘echo flight’,” explained Marshall Iliff, eBird Project Leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “After a huge irruption like we had last winter, the following year often yields higher-than-usual numbers as well. The abundance of lemmings that produced last year’s Snowy Owl irruption likely continued or emerged in new areas of eastern Canada, more owls may have stayed east after last year’s irruption, and some of last year’s birds that came south are returning.”
“This may also be a big year for finches,” noted Audubon Chief Scientist Gary Langham. “GBBC participants in North America should be on the lookout for larger numbers of Pine Siskins and redpolls. These birds also push farther south when pine cone seed crops fail in the far north of Canada.”
Birdwatchers from 135 countries participated in the 2014 count, documenting nearly 4,300 species on more than 144,000 bird checklists. In addition to the U.S. and Canada, India, Australia, and Mexico led the way with the greatest numbers of checklists submitted.
“This is the 18th annual count — and the historical data is crucial in looking at population and distribution trends,” said Cannings. “The GBBC data flow into the eBird database, which is one of the biggest databases in the world on wildlife populations and distribution. It is very important to do this annually, as it gives added power to the population trend analysis that will be done in the future. The GBBC is one of a suite of surveys that provide such information. It will grow in importance as the time series gets longer.”
The Great Backyard Bird Count is a great way for people of all ages and backgrounds to connect with nature and show some love for the birds this Valentine’s Day. Participation is free and easy. To learn more about how to join the count, download instructions, a slide show, web buttons, and other materials, visit http://www.birdcount.org.
“It’s easy, it’s fun, it’s educational. I hope everyone steps outside that weekend and spends 15 minutes or more counting the birds in their backyard or favourite park,” encouraged Cannings.