Apr 3, 2013 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, Spring 2013

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 (ebird.org), 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 BirdCount.org. 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 ContandoAves.org. 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."

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The Latest Comments

  • I am excited to have my daughter’s tree this year, since my landlord has removed the lovely yew next to my patio, which was the only shelter for birds at my feeder.
    by pmalcpoet, Mon, 20 Dec 2021
  • Goldfinches will continue as long as Swiss chard is available. I'm watching one eating chard right now (mid-November in Vermont).
    by Brian Tremback, Sun, 14 Nov 2021
  • Birds are on the decline though sunflowers are rarely touched and for weeks hardly .eaten. I'll try a few sparing nuts on the table and a fat ball broken for jackdaws and tits but mealworms were a summer favourite being my go to choice
    by Paul Harabaras, Thu, 04 Nov 2021
  • I’ve been enjoying goldfinches eating coneflower/ echinacea seeds in my new pollinator garden! I will leave the plants out all winter for them if the seeds keep that long? Or should I deadhead and put them in a dry area? Im in CT and thought they migrated, but didn’t know they put in winter coats! What do they eat in winter without bird feeders?
    by Anne Sheffield, Sat, 04 Sep 2021
  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
    by Dawn Hewitt, Mon, 30 Aug 2021