The Great Backyard Bird Count

By Liza Lester, ESA communications officer
brown pelican

A brown pelican, photographed during the 2010 Great Backyard Bird Count by Bob Howdeshell, of Tennessee. Used by permission.


THIS WEEKEND, as the US celebrated President Washington’s birthday, the National Audubon Society, Bird Studies Canada, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology were celebrating birds, with the fifteenth annual Great Backyard Bird Count.

As the name implies, this four-day event includes the backyard observations of bird-feeding enthusiasts and birding newbies, as well as the more far-flung reports of sturdy winter hikers and wilderness refuge visitors. The organizers distinguish between “stationary counts” made in backyards and “traveling counts” taken by birders strolling through parks, and provide printable bird checklists organized by zip code. You can watch the data come in on the Bird Count’s live-action map, until data entry closes on March 5th (the counts must have been made between Feb. 17th and Feb. 20th, however). As of today, participants have observed 597 species and submitted 79,176 checklists.

Since even couch-bound, self-quarantined residents of urban habitats like our nation’s capital can join the fun, I took my cold medicine and Kleenex, bundled up in a down vest, and settled in on my porch to look for my feathered neighbors. During my hour on the porch (the program asks that you spend at least fifteen minutes, and note the exact time and location), the sun went down, and five specimens of the ubiquitous American Robin bounced about the lawn, flashing their distinctive ruddy chests. To avoid counting the same birds twice, the program instructs participants only to report the largest grouping of a species seen at one time, which did make deciding how many robin were bouncing around easier.

I glimpsed a white-black-white fan of tail-feathers retreating into a neighbor’s shrubbery. After consulting with the Cornell Lab’s online bird guide, I guessed that it was a Dark-eyed Junco. A flock of birds too small to see perched in the high branches of a maple. This bird-counting game was harder than it sounded! For new recruits interested in getting deeper into birding, the robust website includes articles about bird-feeders, bird identification, and binoculars. The site is packed with photos, information about birds, and educational ideas.

How does the program integrate counts from noobs like me with ecological models and data from experienced birders, who know their Fox Sparrows from their Field Sparrows? It combines the thousands of reports to build of snapshot of bird presenteeism across North America’s winter landscape. Linking bird sightings to locations and dates allows scientists to map bird population movements to coincident phenomena like weather, or disease. They can look for changes in bird migration patterns and the unpredictable “irruptions” of winter finches and other species that sometimes suddenly appear in large numbers. This year, they’re wondering how the mild temperatures and missing snow have affected bird distributions.

If you missed the Presidents Day Weekend bird count this year, Project FeederWatch and the eBird online checklist program are ongoing.

Did you participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count this year? Tell us what you saw!


Citizen Science Tuesday is a new series featuring science-inspired community projects and opportunities for non-specialists to jump into scientific research. Do you have a citizen science project that you would like to see covered on EcoTone? Pitch it to llester [at] esa [dot] org.

Citizen Science organizers take note: the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is sponsoring a Conference on Public Participation in Scientific Research on Aug. 4th-5th in Portland, OR, in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (Aug. 5th-10th, 2012). The PPSR conference deadline for poster abstract and scholarship applications is May 4th. Submit abstracts for the ESA annual meeting by 5pm Eastern, this Thursday, Feb. 23rd!

Author: Liza Lester

ESA's Communications Officer came on board in the fall of 2011 after a Mass Media Science and Engineering fellowship with AAAS and a doctorate in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Washington.

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