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Ready, Set, Watch: The Great Backyard Bird Count Starts Today

A maroon oriole rests on a branch in a rain forest in Fuyuan in Taiwan's eastern county of Hualien. Liu Chih-Fen/AP hide caption

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Liu Chih-Fen/AP

A maroon oriole rests on a branch in a rain forest in Fuyuan in Taiwan's eastern county of Hualien.

Liu Chih-Fen/AP

Find your binoculars and fill up the bird feeders, because the Great Backyard Bird Count starts today.

The annual event invites bird-watchers of all levels to count the birds in their backyards, wherever that may be, and submit the data to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, which launched the project in 1998.

This year, the four-day event runs from Feb. 12 to Feb. 15. To participate, sign up online and then tally the numbers and kinds of birds you see for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count, the GBBC website instructs.

More than 100,000 people from all across the world participate in the event, which the website says is "the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time." Last year, it says, participants in more than 100 countries counted 5,090 species of birds.

"This count is so fun because anyone can take part — we all learn and watch birds together — whether you are an expert, novice, or feeder watcher," chief scientist Gary Langham said on Audubon.org. "I like to invite new birders to join me and share the experience. Get involved, invite your friends and see how your favorite spot stacks up."

The GBBC helps researchers learn about ever-shifting bird populations and how to protect them and their environments. While relying on citizen tallies might not be the perfect methodology for pinpointing precise numbers of bird populations, the project is useful in other ways. As The Christian Science Monitor puts it:

"Researchers from the Swedish University of Agricultural Science studied the reliability of citizen science bird counts and determined that volunteers frequently neglect to count common bird species accurately, so the data is less useful for population studies. It is generally more consistent for rare species though, and researchers pointed out that data-gathering is not the only benefit of bird counts.

" 'Voluntary citizen-based platforms are not only tools for collecting great amounts of data, they also engage the public, something that forms a basis for future interest in biodiversity and conservation,' researchers wrote in the journal Biological Conservation."