The 16th annual Great Backyard Bird Count takes place Feb. 15-18, and it gets bigger and better every year. 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.
And this year the GBBC is going global. Anyone from anywhere on Earth can participate by visiting www.birdcount.org.
Begun in 1998, the GBBC enlists birders of all skill levels in an effort to keep common birds common. Last year GBBC citizen scientists turned in 104,285 checklists reporting a total of 623 species consisting of more than 17.4 million individual birds.
"The GBBC is an ideal opportunity for young and old to connect with nature by discovering birds and to participate in a huge science project," said Gary Langham, Audubon's chief scientist. "This year, we hope people on seven continents, oceans, and islands will head out into their neighborhoods, rural areas, parks, and wilderness to further our understanding of birds across the hemispheres."
The top five most frequently reported species last year were northern cardinal, mourning dove, dark-eyed junco, downy woodpecker and American crow. The most numerous birds nationwide were snow geese (3,259,470) and tree swallows (3,060,171). More than 3 million tree swallows roosted near Ruskin, Fla., during the count. (One local observer remarked about the swallows, "It's beyond description. There are so many birds that they look like little pixels on a computer screen.")
Observations such as these demonstrate that the GBBC provides a valuable snapshot of where birds are in midwinter. Such data helps detect changes in birds' numbers and locations from year to year. This year I expect record counts for northern irruptive migrants. Reports of red-breasted nuthatches, pine siskins, evening grosbeaks, common redpolls, and red and white-winged crossbills have been widespread this winter.
The GBBC also serves as an early warning system for worrisome declines in bird populations. Past GBBCs, for example, showed a drop in reports of American Crows since 2003, coincidentally with some of the first widespread outbreaks of West Nile virus in the U.S. This "signal" is consistent with data from more intensive Breeding Bird Surveys, as well as studies demonstrating declines of 50 percent to 75 percent in crow populations in some states after outbreaks of West Nile virus.