As a backyard gardener, I grow plants and herbs for my enjoyment and also to provide habitat for wildlife. My wildflower areas add a splash of color to the front yard, as well as offer rewards for pollinators and seeds for autumn birds. In the backyard, the vegetable garden is ringed with herbs and flowers to encourage pollinators and serve as host plants for butterflies. Shrubs and trees offer cover for birds and the occasional squirrel bold enough to navigate past the dogs.
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Scattered amongst the plantings and gardens are bird feeders that lure beautiful avian species into the yard. Orioles and hummingbirds in summer, sparrows and finches in winter, I spent a fair amount of time gazing out to these feeders to see who has come to visit.
Well, this President's Day Weekend, I have a good excuse for sitting around and watching the birds. Participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is a way to collect data to provide a snapshot of winter bird populations not only in my region, but across the country.
Sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society, and Bird Studies Canada is the Canadian partner in the count. The 18th annual count will be held from Friday, February 13, through Monday, February 16, 2015. Held during President's Day Week
end, the count relies upon people having time off and mostly being at home during that week. Of course, birders can submit their lists from wherever they are; they don't have to be home for this to count.
The "rules" of the citizen-science project are pretty simple: count birds in the backyard for at least 15 minutes on any or all of the count days, and then report the totals online at www.birdcount.org. From novices to experts, anyone can participate in the count. For beginners, this is a great opportunity to slow down, look at the birds in your yard and concentrate on identification, but also catch the birds being birds. Watching behavior is a great way to learn who and what these creatures are.
Though the counting is pretty simple, it doesn't mean totaling the birds every time you look out into the backyard. You can submit checklists for different times in a day or different locations during a single day. Of course, the count isn't just restricted to backyards, but may include anywhere folks are spending the weekend. On the count's home page there is a link to submitting observations or folks can download an app to their smartphone to enter data.
During the 2014 count, over 144,000 checklists were submitted online. Total bird observations were over 34.5 million, with 644 species recorded in the United States. Like pixels in a digital photograph, this incredible number of lists created a snapshot of winter bird populations. The results provide scientists with plenty of data to look for seasonal oddities or bird irruptions that may have resulted from winter weather or climatic change. During the count, participants may review the data that is being submitted by others.
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The 2014 count was the second year to include checklists from outside the U.S. and Canada. People from 135 different countries or independent territories submitted checklists, and this included representation from all seven continents. The Northern cardinal was the number one species with 61,045 individuals counted. Some other Top 10 species were dark-eyed juncos, mourning doves, house finches and blue jays.
Though the Great Backyard Bird Count is about counting birds, it also serves as a launching point for getting folks interested in birds. On the count's website there are several links to helping identify birds, and even one that focuses on those hard-to-identify species that look similar to their relatives.
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And if just participating is not enough, everyone who submits a checklist is entered into a drawing for bird-related prizes like CDs, books, binoculars and bird feeders. There is also a photo contest for photographers to submit images from the weekend. Different categories include overall, species, composition, habitat, group and people. Again, visit the website to get some ideas and get your camera or smartphone ready! Wild Birds Unlimited is a generous supporter of the count, providing a lot of the goodies for the drawings and prizes.
Don't be surprised when you go to enter your data and the website changes to eBird. This is the data housing site for the count, as well as for checklists sent in during the rest of the year. Anyone can look at the data; sometimes this is a great way to learn about what birds occur in your area or where to look for birds in your county. This huge data set is available to anyone, which makes the submitting even more rewarding.
So dust off those field guides and load up your bird feeders this President's Day weekend for some fun birding and rewarding contributions to the plight of birds across the world.