The Great Backyard Bird Count

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

What do you think? Tell us!

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  • I had a pair nesting for the first time this year at our farmstead in South Dakota. Boxes put out for Bluebirds which didn't come, but these were a very pleasant consolation.
    by fluffypeanutcat, Tue, 25 Sep 2018
  • This is a good point. While cleaning mine, I kinda got the impression the cheep cheeps were waiting on me since they started chirping as soon as I brought it outside again. I swear they are so smart. Within five minutes of filling the feeder up, they are there to feast.cheers Cheep cheeps!
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 20 Jul 2018
  • Hahaha, I love the ending remark "that area will have already been well -fertilized!"I've noticed that there are more cheep cheeps right after I clean the bird feeder compared to how many there are right before it was cleaned...so cheep cheeps do like and appreciate a well maintained feeder and they are worth the effort. : )
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 20 Jul 2018
  • The storm saying seems true so far. We had as party at our bird feeder right before our last storm... 6 at once but different cheeps cheeps would come and go so there were more than 6 for sure..and squirrels eating with the birds
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 13 Jul 2018
  • I know and do clean my feeders both for seed and for hummingbird liquid. I have a vase full of different size brushes that are only for this purpose. I have friends however who NEVER clean their feeders or bird baths, and it’s gross! I am ringing this article and will have to give out to the few offenders I know. I can’t imagine looking at such mess and not cleaning it, but not everyone thinks resale. Part of responsible bird watching/loving is to make the time and take the effort to do this.
    by Carol, Tue, 10 Jul 2018