Bird Watchers Begin Great Backyard Bird Census

Starting Friday, bird watchers across North America and in Hawaii will be counting birds in their backyards in a massive effort to collect data on winter bird populations. It's called the Great backyard bird count. Commentator Julie Zickefoose will participate.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Over the next four days, if you see your neighbor standing around staring through binoculars, don't call the police. At least not right away. They may very well be taking part in the Great Backyard Bird Count.

It's a massive effort to collect data on winter bird populations, and commentator and naturalist Julie Zickefoose will be taking part in her neck of the woods, Whipple, Ohio.

JULIE ZICKEFOOSE: When ornithology was a nestling science, it was mostly the domain of men, dapper in suits and ties, who studied birds by shooting, skinning, and making vast museum collections of them. Every age, sex and geographical variant was represented.

A quiet revolution began in the early 20th century when Ludlow Griscom and his young protégé, Roger Tory Peterson, began watching birds through binoculars. Griscom maintained that it was perfectly possible to identify living birds as they hopped and flew overhead, something that most museum ornithologists scoffed at. Roger Peterson went on to write and illustrate the first popular field guide to eastern birds and bird watching as a hobby, and a science, was born.

Binoculars and a field guide are still really all you need to become a bird scientist. For the next four days, volunteers all across the United States, Canada and Hawaii will look out their windows and count the birds in their backyards. They'll look for the highest number of any one species they can count at one time, and they'll try to find as many different species as they can.

In 2005, this effort netted over 52,000 responses, tallying 612 species and over six and a half million individual birds were counted. They'll all be reported online.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a cooperative effort of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. As each participant sends in a checklist, our knowledge of the nation's bird populations increases incrementally.

Collated, the data show trends and changes in status. Blue Jays are moving westward. Red-bellied Woodpeckers are flooding northward. Fourteen species of Hummingbirds hung around, out of their normal range, last winter. And Eurasian Collar Doves are invading everywhere, now being recorded in 27 states.

These range expansions may have something to do with the growing popularity of bird feeding, and they be related to climate change. It's averaging two degrees warmer in winter than it was thirty years ago.

Collecting this data is the vital first step in helping scientists figure out why some birds are expanding their ranges and why others are disappearing. We've come a long way from the days of shotgun ornithology. Collectively, amateurs are providing a snapshot of late winter bird populations all across America. It's like a wildlife census, and anyone who can identify birds can participate.

Birds, with their high reproductive potential and sensitivity to environmental change, react quickly to any perturbation, whether it's natural or artificial. Massive efforts like the Great Backyard Bird Count transform birds, and everyday bird watchers, into environmental sentinels on a scale undreamt of by the dapper men with shotguns.

NORRIS: Julie Zickefoose is a contributing editor for Birdwatchers Digest.

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