The Great Backyard Bird Count really is great: it’s a free, annual citizen science project that can take as little as 15 minutes behind the warm side of a window, or as much as a four-day weekend behind a bird blind in the snow, and anything in between. Your choice. It happens every President’s Day weekend, which happens to include Valentine’s Day this year: February 13—16. Any level of participation counts with this bird count, no expertise is required, and the organizers make it easy to succeed. Child labor is especially welcome. You and your kid can just stick a feeder in the yard and watch what visits. ID the birds with lists provided, count how many of each you see, and input the data. The tallies, collected world-wide, help the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society see a “big picture” of wild bird populations, and help scientists answer questions about distribution, diversity, migration, disease, the influence of weather and climate, and so on. The professional bird nerds benefit, big-time.
We, the amateur counters, benefit, too. Even absolute beginners can get a heads-up about our own native habitat: what birds need, which species are here year-round and which aren’t, which are native and which are introduced. The program might even nudge us and our kids toward more outside time, more interest in the natural world, more “vitamin N.”
My son, now eight, looks forward to the count. We started four years ago, and what reeled him in wasn’t so much the critters as the clipboard (I print the data form to see at a glance). The kicker was knowing he would get to input the data afterward. Since then, he’s developed enough of an interest to ID many of the songs and calls in the yard, as well as the visible visitors to the black oil sunflower feeders, thistle feeder and birdbath. He also knows that some birds are only here in winter, like the ground-foraging white-throated sparrows. He loves these because to cater to their needs (they don’t fly up to feeders), we get to drag home a neighbor’s dead Christmas tree as temporary brush pile, and then, just for fun, set it on fire in the spring.
He also loves the online range maps, and best of all, the real-time world map that shows a blast of color whenever someone, anyone, anywhere presses the “send” button to submit tallies. That was the real kicker for my boy: to see that every count counts, including his own.
Click on the Great Backyard Bird Count for more info, to register, see a “how-to” slideshow, access bird ID tools, explore birding apps and more neat stuff.