for National Geographic News
For four days this past February, approximately a hundred thousand people all over North America braved the winter chill, stepped outside, tallied the birds in their backyards, and reported their findings over the Internet as part of the Great Backyard Bird Count.
The tally, reported last week, shows that the participants turned in 42,509 checklists accounting for 554 species of birds, totaling 4,304,598 individuals.
Thousands of the checklists were turned in by individuals or groups that had never before actively birded. "We get tremendous numbers of comments extolling at length how fun it was to do," said John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York.
The lab, together with the National Audubon Society, has run the bird count for the past seven years. The goal is to get a snapshot of the abundance and distribution of birds in the coldest months of the year.
Combined with data collected during other times of the year, the information allows conservationists and scientists to keep tabs on the health of North America's bird populations. The more data collected, the better their information, so the scientists are constantly recruiting participants.
Sally Conyne, director of citizen science for the National Audubon Society, said the Great Backyard Bird Count is especially designed with novice birders in mind.
"It's designed to be simple and straightforward for people familiar with the birds in their backyard. What we encourage people to tell us are the birds they are familiar with, sure of, and able to identify," she said.
While the next Great Backyard Bird Count is ten months away (February 18 to 21, 2005), now is a fine time for novices to get outside and figure out the source of all those jubilant chirps, tweets, and whistles that fill the spring air.
According to Fitzpatrick, the best way to begin is by perusing several different bird books, getting an idea of how different authors and artists depict the same birds. "There is no such thing as one best bird book, because each has its own strength," Fitzpatrick said.
Conyne suggests putting a bird feeder in the backyard or going to the park to get a sense for what kinds of birds are around. "Most people are amazed when they discover how many birds they are familiar with," she said.
Once a novice is ready to give active birding a shot, Fitzpatrick recommends first going along with an experienced friend who is passionate about the activity, and then going out solo.
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