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The Buzz

For The Birds: Great Backyard Bird Count Helps Scientists Track Populations

A black-capped chickadee. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Peterson via Will County Wildlife)

Amateur scientists and bird watchers have an opportunity this weekend to participate in a worldwide citizen-science project: the 23rd annual Great Backyard Bird Count.

Anyone with at least 15 minutes to spare from Friday, February 14, to Monday, February 17, can collect data on bird populations by simply counting the birds they see right where they are, even if it's just out the kitchen window. The initiative, started in 1998 as a joint effort between the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, helps create a snapshot of global bird populations, which scientists can then analyze for their research.

Why It's Important

Bird populations are always in flux, which makes them difficult to study. The data collected through the bird count helps document bird movement and distribution, which is why it is so useful to scientists, the Cornell Lab reports. 

Information gathered through the bird count and other citizen-scientist programs, such as the Christmas Bird Count, eBird and Project FeederWatch, creates a real-time picture of bird populations. Scientists can use the data to help understand "big-picture" topics, such as how weather and climate change affect birds, the timing of migrations among different species, bird diversity in different types of habitats, and how diseases are affecting birds in different regions.

The information collected through the Great Backyard Bird Count becomes more useful to scientists the longer it is collected, because it helps identify trends and changes over time, according to the Cornell Lab.



How To Participate

Anyone anywhere in the world can take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, as long as they have at least 15 minutes to count birds over the four-day data collection period. To get started, visit the Great Backyard Bird Count website and create an account. If you've participated in the past, there's no need to create a new account. You're already registered and can use your existing account to participate.

During the collection period, spend at least 15 minutes on one of the four days counting birds, taking note of the number of individual birds of each species you see during your counting time. You can spend as much time as you want counting over the four-day period, but you should submit a different checklist for each day and each location or for the same location if you count for more than one time period each day. The data you collect can be submitted via the "Submit Observations" tab when logged into your bird count account.

You can use the tools under the "Explore Data" tab on the Great Backyard Bird Count website to watch in real time as other people submit their checklists of what they observed as well as look at checklists from previous bird counts.  

2019 Results

The 2019 Great Backyard Bird Count was a record setter, with 204,921 checklists submitted, documenting 6,699 bird species across the world, according to the 2019 Great Backyard Bird Count summary. The country with the greatest number of checklists submitted was the United States, with 136,903 submitted. The county with the greatest diversity of species was Colombia, with 1,095 reported bird species. In the United States, 669 different kinds of birds were included on checklists.

The most frequently reported species in 2019 was the northern cardinal, included on 56,785 checklists. The cardinal has taken the top spot in nine of the past 10 years. Rounding out the 10 most frequently reported species were the dark-eyed junco, mourning dove, downy woodpecker, blue jay, American crow, house finch, house sparrow, black-capped chickadee and white-breasted nuthatch.

The most numerous species in the 2019 count was the red-winged blackbird, with more than 4 million birds counted. All the top 10 most numerous birds in the 2019 count are common across North America. Others in the top 10 include the snow goose, European starling, Canada goose, common murre, ring-billed gull, mallard, American robin, American coot and northern shoveler. 


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