The Great Backyard Bird Count

American goldfinches swamp thistle sock feeders at a reader's backyard feeding station.

Backyard bird watchers from more than 100 countries made history this past winter in the first global Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). In the largest worldwide bird count ever, bird watchers counted more than 25 million birds on 116,000 online checklists, recording more than 3,500 species. That's one-third of the world's total bird species.

What's the GBBC?

Led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Audubon Society, and Bird Studies Canada, the GBBC is an annual four-day event in which bird watchers of all ages and skill levels count birds. There is no participation fee and the birds can be counted anywhere: in your backyard, at the local park, or on a wildlife refuge. Participants simply watch birds at any location for at least 15 minutes, tally the number of each species they see, and report their tallies online. The data creates a useful snapshot of current bird populations. The count is held in February in order to see how birds are surviving the winter and where they are located just before spring migrations begin in March.

The GBBC has been going on since 1998, but until this year the count was limited to North America. In 2013 the GBBC was opened to the world for the first time, resulting in a record-smashing avalanche of reports. "This is a milestone for citizen science in so many respects—number of species, diversity of countries involved, total participants, and number of individual birds recorded," said Cornell Lab director John Fitzpatrick. "We hope this is just a start of something far larger, engaging the whole world in creating a detailed annual snapshot of how all our planet's birds are faring as the years go by."

Another exciting addition to this year's GBBC was the integration of eBird (, an online checklist program. This allowed participants to report birds globally in real-time and explore the results online.

What's the Big Deal about Counting Birds?

Bird populations are always changing. The data collected from thousands of citizen scientists through programs like the GBBC each year provides a better picture of where the birds are and how various species are doing overall. These observations can also tell us more about how bird populations are influenced by winter weather, diseases, and habitat distribution. It can be especially interesting to look at the status of irruptive species. For example, 2012 was the year of the snowy owl. Hundreds of these magnificent raptors had wandered south in search of food, likely due to a crash in their prey population back home in the Arctic. Snowy owls were reported throughout the United States as far south as Kansas. This year's GBBC highlighted the massive movement of northern finches, with bird watchers reporting large numbers of evening grosbeaks, common and hoary redpolls, and red and white-winged crossbills.

How Can I Get Involved?

Participating in the GBBC is easy. To learn more about how to join next year's count—which will be take place February 14-17, 2014—visit You can also explore data from past counts and see results for specific species, regions, or years. Portions of the GBBC site now are available in Spanish at Of course, the GBBC is not the only time to report bird observations. Several other citizen scientist opportunities exist, including the Christmas Bird Count, Project FeederWatch, and NestWatch. You can also contribute to avian science year-round by submitting your sightings to eBird. "People who care about birds can change the world," said Audubon chief scientist Gary Langham. "Technology has made it possible for people everywhere to unite around a shared love of birds and a commitment to protecting them."

What do you think? Tell us!

comments powered by Disqus

New On This Site

The Latest Comments

  • I live in Southeastern Massachusetts. Four "orphaned" very young poults (males) showed up in my yard about a year ago. They have been around all year. I do feed them cracked corn, and they come when I call for them. I don't want to over- domesticate them, but they do recognize me as the lady that brings food. They roost in the big oak trees at night. I have a 1 acre lot, with many acres of protected forest out back and a pond on the property.Lately, during mating season, I have had hens in the yard too. We've counted as many as 7 Toms and hens, but today, had just the one stalwart (a very robust Tom) that comes everyday. One of the Toms that has recently made an appearance is wounded, limping with an obvious predator wound. The local wildlife experts say he should make a full recovery, and that he's best left to recover with his flock.I find them to be interesting and beautiful birds.
    by Heather Cole, Mon, 06 Apr 2020
  • You have to put food in it.
    by Truckee Man, Mon, 06 Apr 2020
  • Love listeningto both songs and calls from birds in our woody neighborhood. The two types of birds I immediately recognize are the cardinals and the chickadees. Yesterday afternoon too, I heard a woodpecker. Then it’s time to check the birdfeeders and the birdbath. Then In no time at all the cardinals and chickadees arrive, as if they had been watching me. As it gets busier around the feeders, I also hear thé screeching of the blue jays. I even saw a couple of robins checking out our lawn....spring has arrived as the last pat gesofisticeerde snow and ice melt away.
    by louisabt, Sun, 08 Mar 2020
  • I am wondering about existing nests for Phoebes. I have two outdoor aisle entries to my barn and there are old Phoebe nests up. They ignore them each year and build new nests adjacent to the old, but space is running out. Should I knock down the old nests so they can rebuild?
    by [email protected], Sun, 02 Feb 2020
  • Just wondering, should we put anything in the bottom of the box...twigs, clippings, leaves....anything at all?
    by Hebb, Tue, 28 Jan 2020