Sixth Great Backyard Bird Count Begins in U.S.

Mel Baughman
for National Geographic News
February 13, 2003
The Sixth Annual Great Backyard Bird Count begins in the United States this weekend and volunteer "citizen scientists" are needed across the country.

What is the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) and who does the counting?

The GBBC is a joint effort of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society to determine the status of winter bird populations across the continent. The GBBC provides a "snapshot" of the number of individual birds and species present during the coldest winter days, the season of survival. It spans four days, February 14 through 17.

"We need every birder to join us," said Audubon Senior Vice President of Science Frank Gill. "The Great Backyard Bird Count has become a vitally important means of gathering data to help birds, but it can't happen unless people take part. Whether you're a novice or an expert, we need you to take part and help us help birds."

The object is to carefully and correctly tally the birds that come to your backyard, or a local park or other natural area of your choice. Birds may be counted in as many different areas you wish, but a separate checklist must be kept for each area and for each day. Participants may submit tallies for any one or all four of the count days.

Counters are encouraged to watch the birds in their chosen area for at least 15 minutes, but 30 minutes or longer will afford a better sense of the birds present, but be careful not to count the same bird over and over. The tally is kept by species and the highest number of individuals of each species seen is reported.

Who evaluates the GBBC data and what is its value?

Last year, Cornell Lab and Audubon scientists evaluated counts submitted by over 47,000 participants in the GBBC. The data collected is combined with Christmas Bird Count and Project Feeder Watch data providing a broader and more accurate picture of the winter bird population.

"When the last ivory-billed woodpecker was seen in the 1930s, there was no concrete way for citizens to help professional ornithologists monitor bird populations," said Cornell Lab of Ornithology director John Fitzpatrick, "We cannot allow other species to face the same fate as the ivory-bill. The Great Backyard Bird Count provides a way for citizens to help us determine which birds are where and in what numbers, so we can take steps to protect those that need protecting."

Counters are asked to be especially aware of species that appear on Audubon's WatchList Web site.

Birds on the Audubon WatchList are not listed as endangered or threatened, but are in decline and bear monitoring so action can be taken to maintain sustainable numbers.

A similar effort has been undertaken by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which just this week released their list of Birds of Conservation Concern 2002.

It is important to note that seeking rare and endangered species is not the object of the GBBC. The goal is to census America's more common birds to gain a better understanding of their population dynamics.

For example, the Carolina wren is a familiar bird in the southeast. Georgia reported 2,470 Carolina wrens in GBBC 2002, and Atlanta reported 326 individuals, the most for any city. Pairs vigorously defend their territories making more than two wrens in any one backyard very unlikely, so the numbers are believed to be quite accurate.

However, Carolina wrens are particularly sensitive to cold temperatures and severe weather events, and birds at their northern range periodically experience large die-offs that cause the species range to contract, often taking ten or more years for the population to recover. Cornell Lab and Audubon are very interested to see what GBBC 2003 will reveal about the current winter distribution of the Carolina wren.

How can you become a "citizen scientist" and participate in the GBBC 2003?

Participation in the GBBC is totally Web-based. Complete information and instructions are provided at this Web site.

Participants are asked to assist those who do not have access to the Web, or to direct them to computers provided by local libraries or bird clubs. Wild Birds Unlimited is a major sponsor of the GBBC and many stores will provide assistance in submitting count tallies. For more information contact at Wild Birds Unlimited.

After you have submitted your data you are encouraged to check the results section of the Web site and watch as data is posted from across North America. It is very satisfying to know you have been a significant part of the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Mel Baughman, birder, conservationist, author, and publisher, is founder and executive editor of National Geographic BirdWatcher newsletter and contributing editor to National Geographic News. He has birded North and Central America, Brazil, Australia, and much of Europe. As director of special publications at the National Wildlife Federation, he published nature and conservation-related books. Baughman has written numerous articles in national magazines on mountaineering, sportfishing, and birdwatching. He lives in Burke, Virginia.

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