How to Participate in this Year's Bird Count

Jan 18, 2018

Do you enjoy watching birds at a backyard feeder?

In this week's episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist talks about two backyard bird feeder surveys that take place every winter.

In 1994 a United States Congressional Resolution proclaimed February as National Bird-Feeding Month. Ornithologists (bird scientists) generally agree that February is a critical month for bird survival. For 20 years now the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) has also been run in February, a good fit because it incorporates birds that visit backyard feeders. Last year the count operated February 13-15, during which time over 214,000 participants submitted upwards of 173,000 checklists, with more than 5,900 species being recorded. This is a notable example of citizen science in action, and it gives biologists a snapshot of bird species composition and abundance across North America. In 2016, there were at least 53 checklists submitted from Oneida County, which reported 32 bird species, the most common of which were common redpolls and snow buntings. Surprisingly, one of our most common residents, the black-capped chickadee, didn’t even make the top ten; only two individuals were seen.

All the information collected is readily available to peruse at www.birdsource.org/gbbc. If you are interested in participating, this year’s count will run February 16-19. No special skills, knowledge or training is required, and the time commitment is very manageable. Simply tally the numbers and kinds of birds you see for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count. You can count from any location, anywhere in the world, for as long as you wish, and then you submit your observations online through eBird.

Experienced birdwatchers are probably acquainted with eBird, a real-time, online bird species checklist program operated by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audobon Society. Participants need to register for a free online account they can use to submit or view information for basic information on bird abundance and distribution. Observations from the GBBC are submitted through eBird as well, so you would need to set up your account at eBird.org.

If that’s not enough for citizen science for you, consider joining Project FeederWatch, a winter-long survey of birds that visit a variety of feeders across North America. Feeder watchers periodically count the birds they see at their feeders from November through early April and submit their observations which help scientists track broadscale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.

Anyone interested in birds can participate. FeederWatch is conducted by people of all skill levels and backgrounds, including children, families, individuals, classrooms, retired persons, youth groups, nature centers, and bird clubs. You can count birds as often as every week, or as infrequently as you like: the schedule is completely flexible. All you need is a bird feeder, bird bath, or plantings that attract birds.

New participants are sent a kit containing complete instructions for participating, as well as a calendar, bird identification poster and more. You provide the feeders and seed. There is an $18 annual participation fee which fee covers materials, staff support, web design, data analysis, and the year-end report (Winter Bird Highlights).

Wintertime can provide some excellent bird viewing opportunities. Local birds that normally may not be overly social (like cardinals) seem to mellow out in the wintertime to share concentrated food and water sources. I tend to slip into saying that migratory birds head south, but there are some notable exceptions—birds that migrate into our area in wintertime that we see no other time of year. Snow buntings breed in the high arctic; when they migrate south for the winter, they come here to Wisconsin. The Northern shrike, a predatory songbird, is another example. They may not come to your feeders, but you may see them perched on a fencepost or sign post watching for small birds or mammals to eat. These birds rarely encounter people or vehicles in the arctic, so they aren’t very wary and can provide rewarding viewing opportunities in winter.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.