Out & About: Great Backyard Bird Count Q&A

  • A child participates in the Great Backyard Bird Count at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee, Vt. (Courtesy of Vermont Institute of Natural Science)

  • Two goldfinches drop by for a snack during the Great Backyard Bird Count at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee, Vt. (Courtesy of Vermont Institute of Natural Science)

Valley News Correspondent
Monday, February 12, 2018

Backyard bird-watchers are often the first to notice trends in bird populations from year to year. Perhaps you’ve seen fewer downy woodpeckers at the feeder this winter. Or it seems the blue jays have selected your yard as their favorite neighborhood hang-out.

The Great Backyard Bird Count, a worldwide volunteer project coordinated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, is a chance to quantify these observations and put them to good use. This year’s count will be held Friday, Feb. 16, through Monday, Feb. 19.

At the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee, special activities will take place Saturday through Monday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with admission $15 for adults and $13 for ages 4-17 and 62-plus.

But participants can also contribute to data collection just by counting birds in their own backyards.

Anna Autilio, lead environmental educator at VINS, explains how to get involved in a Q&A. Her responses have been edited for clarity and length. For even more information about the Great Backyard Bird Count, visit http://gbbc.birdcount.org.

Question: How did the Great Backyard Bird Count get started?

Answer: The GBBC was started in 1998 as the first online citizen science project that was able to display observations in real time. The goal was to collect as much data as possible about the distribution of bird species around the world, and to see if the online format was a good way to monitor their biology. Four years later, Cornell and Audubon launched eBird, a website that allows citizen scientists to monitor birds all year long. Data from both projects are invaluable for understanding birds on a scale so much larger than scientists are able to collect without the aid of volunteers.

Q: How does the information gathered during this weekend help scientists study bird populations?

A: Data are used in an enormous variety of ways, some of which have yet to be discovered. What I mean by that is we don’t yet know the full value of these data, which may be able to show long-term trends linked to weather, climate, habitat and human influence. GBBC data have already helped scientists discover where certain species spend the winter, how native ranges of others are expanding or shrinking, and thereby where to focus our habitat conservation efforts.

Q: Can you talk about any specific discoveries that have been made as a result of the count?

A: Data from eBird and the GBBC have been used in dozens of scientific publications in 2017 alone. One that recently caught my eye involved looking at the effects of demolition of vacant buildings in cities on avian biodiversity.

The researchers used citizen science observations to measure bird diversity in Buffalo, N.Y., so anyone who ever submitted a checklist in Buffalo participated in this study, probably without even knowing it.

Q: How can people participate in their own backyards?

A: It’s super easy. Start by creating a free account at birdcount.org. Then, grab a notebook and choose a spot to watch birds. You can participate for just 15 minutes, or the whole four days (remember to sleep!), being sure to note how many birds you see, what species and how many people were observing with you.

Watching a bird feeder can be a great way to get started. Just remember to count only the largest group you see at once — that little chickadee who came back 27 times to take one sunflower seed was probably one chickadee, not 27. Then at the end of your count, submit your checklist online under your new account. You can use this account all year long, not just during the GBBC weekend.

Q: Is it OK for casual birders to take part, even if they can only recognize a few species?

A: Of course! The Great Backyard Bird Count asks you to report only species you were able to identify, so there’s no need to be an “expert” birder. A new feature of eBird allows you to submit photos and song recordings with your checklist, so if you are able to snap a picture of your mystery bird, it’s likely someone can help you identify it later.

Q: The Audubon Society also coordinates an annual Christmas bird count. Why do they have two counts so close together? How does this month’s event differ from the Christmas event?

A: The Christmas Bird Count and the GBBC seem close, but in terms of the cycle of the seasons, each count has vastly different data to offer.

The Christmas count is the oldest citizen science project running, at 118 years, and it looks at birds in North America in the dead of winter. Participants attempt to count all birds present in a particular 15-mile diameter circle during one day.

Participants in the GBBC count birds at a single location, anywhere in the world, for four straight days, starting a new count every 15 minutes, and it’s just on the cusp of spring in the northern hemisphere. The procedures are slightly different, and so you end up with a still photo of birds in North America with the Christmas Bird Count, and a sort of short repeated video of birds all over the world with the GBBC.

Q: What are some activities VINS will be offering in conjunction with the Backyard Bird Count this weekend?

A: At VINS we’ll be counting birds at two different feeder locations on campus, and also inviting our visitors to meet some of our local species up close and personal, with live raptor presentations throughout the day. Intrepid birders can join one of our naturalists for a snowshoe hike on our forested trails, and then return to warm up with some hot chocolate.