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 have experienced this when a house wren punctured 5 blue bird eggs last spring in our blue bird box. Then I hung out a wren box by the trees and he got busy filling it and left the bluebirds alone and they successfully raised another brood!
    by Susan, Sun, 07 Apr 2019
  • I also have several turkeys that live in the woods behind me. They visit early morning and near sundown. Living in the country with a mountain and brook behind my house, I have animals visiting 24hrs a day. My turkeys are awesome. They know me and wait for their breakfast. They hop up on my patio wall to look in my windows. I also noticed the 2 birds that are the lookouts. They come over to eat as the others march across my lawn to my neighbor who also feeds the animals. We also have coyotes that, I am sure, have eaten turkey dinner. The squirrels run around and chase them to protect their seeds and cracked corn. I feed my 3 raccoons peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which they share with a possum and 3 skunks, at the same time, by the way. No food goes into my garbage. Meat scraps go to crows and hawks. Everything else, even soup, gets eaten before the sun is completely set. That keeps bears away if no dishes are there to entice. I break up bread in tiny pieces now and turkeys 'gobble' it up. So happy to find another person that enjoys wildlife. Nothing is more satisfying than walking out side and spotting Daisy the skunk, calling her name and watching her tripping all over herself, running to meet you. Thank you for your valuable information.
    by Stella Kachur, Wed, 27 Mar 2019
  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018