The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) marks its 15th anniversary over President's Weekend, Feb. 17-20. A joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada, this popular citizen science project is an opportunity for all to discover the wonders of nature we call birds.
The GBBC enlists birders of all skill levels in an effort to keep common birds common. Last year GBBC ''citizen scientists'' turned in 92,218 checklists reporting a total of 594 species consisting of more than 11.4 million individual birds.
''When thousands of people tell us what they're seeing, we can detect patterns in how birds are faring from year to year,'' said Janis Dickinson, director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Though called the Great ''Backyard'' Bird Count, it extends far beyond backyards. Many participants count birds in parks, nature centers, or wildlife refuges.
''The GBBC is a perfect example of citizen science,'' says Audubon Chief Scientist Gary Langham. ''Like Audubon's Christmas Bird Counts, volunteers help us with data year after year, providing scientific support that is the envy of many institutions. It's also lots of fun.''
Richard Cannings, senior projects officer for Bird Studies Canada adds, ''The more people that take part, the better it is for the birds.''
The five most frequently reported species in 2011 were northern cardinal, mourning dove, dark-eyed junco, downy woodpecker and American goldfinch. The most numerous birds nationwide were European starlings, American robins, common grackles, Canada geese and red-winged blackbirds. This demonstrates that the GBBC provides a valuable snapshot of where birds are in mid-winter.
Maps from the count have also captured the dramatic spread of Eurasian collared-doves. Introduced to the Bahamas in the 1970s, the species was reported in just eight states during the 1999 GBBC. Last year, it was reported in 40 states and Canadian provinces, including Alaska. Curiously, collared doves have not been reported in any northeastern state.
Last year, New York ranked first (5,817) in the number of checklists submitted, followed by Ohio (5,093) and Pennsylvania (4,685). Southern states reported the most species: Texas recorded 326 species, followed by California (308), Florida (266) and Arizona (243).
The value of the GBBC is the compilation of observations from many individuals. For example, my 2011 checklist was just one of 664 submitted from West Virginia. I recorded 13 species and 51 individual birds for my count. None was unusual or rare. I recorded nine white-throated sparrows, northern cardinals and American goldfinches and just one mourning dove, red-bellied woodpecker and downy woodpecker. It's something that, in as little as 15 minutes, anyone can do.
Participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count requires no expertise. Participants count birds for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one or more days of the event and report their sightings online. It's easy, free and fun.
Results are updated hourly on animated maps and colorful graphs for all to view. This near-instant feedback allows participants to see how their observations fit into the continental perspective. Results from previous GBBCs are also available online.
Introducing young children to the GBBC is a great way to teach patience, colors, counting and the importance of following directions. After submitting results, counters can instantly see how their results contribute to the continent-wide effort. The immediate feedback helps them understand that they have indeed become citizen scientists.
To see some of the best photos submitted from past GBBCs, visit www.birdsource.org/gbbc/gallery. The GBBC web site also includes a variety of other useful birding information - vocabulary, photos, birdwatching tips and vocalizations.
In addition to results, the GBBC website includes a variety of other useful birding information - vocabulary, photos, birdwatching and birdfeeding tips, and vocalizations. It's a valuable resource for all birders, especially students.
The GBBC is a terrific way to contribute to a better understanding of birds. For more information about the GBBC or the Lab of Ornithology, contact the lab at 159 Sapsucker Woods Road, Ithaca, NY 14850, www.birdcount.org or call 800-843-2473.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or by email via my website, scottshalaway.googlepages.com.