February 15, 2002

Great Backyard Bird Count Kicks Off This Weekend

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If you can take your eyes off the Olympics and/or your beloved this weekend, the Audubon Society and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology would like you to redirect them outside. Feb. 15-18 will mark the fifth annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), a joint project of these two groups.

The GBBC — which asks people to count birds in their backyards, outside their offices, or in any other outdoor setting — has grown from 14,000 participants to 65,000 in recent years.

“It’s very exciting to see it grow over the years and to see that this is something people care about and want to participate in,” said Allison Wells, communications and outreach director for the Lab of Ornithology.

Those who count can enter their results on the Web (www.birdsource. com/gbbc) and the tally will be updated and posted continuously throughout the weekend.

“[The GBBC] is the only one of its kind in North America in that it uses the Internet,” said John Fitzpatrick, the L.A. Fuertes director of the Lab of Ornithology. “One of the neat things is that you can tune in all weekend long.”

The website also provides an illustrated bird guide, recordings of birdsongs, data from past counts, and birdwatching and feeding resources.

Founded in 1998, the GBBC was designed to use data from observers across the country to track birds at a time when they have reached the southernmost point in their winter migrations.

“There are tens of millions of people who enjoy watching birds casually, which gives us a huge army of people who can give us observations. We wanted to establish a project that gives us as fine-grained a detail as possible,” Fitzpatrick said.

Matthew Medler grad, an officer in the Cornell Birding Club, has participated in three of the previous counts and agrees.

“I go bird watching regularly so it was just kind of a natural thing to do,” he said.

In order to participate in the count, observers must watch an area for at least 15 minutes and keep track of the highest number of birds in each species that they see at one time. This prevents counting the same bird more than once. Participants must also record their type of habitat, the depth of s

now, and how long they watched.

Fortunately for amateurs, common bird sightings are well appreciated.

“We’re actually much more interested in the common birds than the rare ones. They give us more statistical power and they’re easier to identify,” said Fitzpatrick.

Accuracy is ensured by regional lists (you can’t enter a Roadrunner sighting if you live in Ithaca), tally caps (100 Robins is not a valid entry) and by the sheer weight of numbers.

Data from past years has revealed several trends already.

“The center of gravity of many species has drifted northward over the last few decades — we’re wondering if this is related to global warming,” said Fitzpatrick.

Snow depth observations, which were taken for the first time last year, may be correlated with the distributions of several species, including ones termed “irruptive”. These species may show up as just a few individuals one year, and thousands the next. Scientists will be interested in seeing what factors may be contributing to the shifting southern limit of their range.

This year, a group known as the winter finches has been making appearances.

“I’ve seen [a finch called] the Common Redpoll. Last winter it was totally absent. This has been quite a good year for winter finches,” Medler said.

Snow depth observations from the GBBC have also led to some new discoveries in well-known species.

“The most unusual thing we’ve noticed is the annual distribution of some of the most common birds. We’ve noticed the American Robin has a remarkably abrupt northern limit which corresponds to a few inches of snow,” Fitzpatrick added.

Since the numbers of participants is so large, the Count’s cumulative snow depth data has yielded finely detailed results.

“[Last year] we came up with a map of snow depths that was more detailed than NOAA’s (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration),” said Fitzpatrick.

The GBBC is also important not just for the data from any one year, but for the comprehensive picture it provides over the course of several years.

“We’ll make the most insights after we have 10-15 years of data. We’ll be able to accumulate a database that will allow us to look at trends.”

The GBBC is also for monitoring the environment, according to Fitzpatrick. If a species of bird is in decline, that may be an indicator that an environmental change has occurred.

“We get a snapshot of one of the most revealing groups [as to how the environment is doing]. Birds are great environmental indicators. They’re also quite easy to count,” Fitzpatrick said.

“[We want people to know] their observation matters. It provides a unique piece of information that only they can provide. We need every pair of eyes,” Wells added.

Archived article by Jennifer Frazer