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  • Writer's pictureJohn Sterling Poole

The Great Backyard Bird Count!

Every year, birders from around the world commit a weekend of their time to record valuable data that is used for research and observation in order to better understand, monitor, and discover bird population health, characteristics, and changes. That weekend is the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), and it is coming very soon. This year’s Count is scheduled for February 14-17, 2020 and anyone can sign up for it. This post is going to explain why everyone should sign up for it.

The GBBC, overseen by Cornell Labs and the Audubon Society, has happened every second week of February since 1998. It has grown in participation every year and the research yielded from the GBBC has really expanded our understanding of bird populations for the last two decades.

Don't neglect shorebirds from your count! Visit a beach and record what you see!

With what you record, the data is collected and compiled by the folks at Cornell Labs. It is then vetted to make sure the recording was done properly and accurately. After that, the data is researched and looked over for patterns and trends that are different to years before. However, it is not as simple number of birds in your yard. The scientists at Cornell Labs will also collect all information in the area about temperature and weather to see what effects that may have on populations. Synthesizing all of that information, the biggest result from the GBBC is that it offer a fairly accurate assessment of a species’ general population. Other research that can be produced is migration patterns (and changes within them), certain factors that affect populations/migration patterns such as storms, extra rainy springs, very dry summers, etc. By monitoring all of these things and studying changes from year, trends can be identified from previous years and predictions can be made for preceding years.

How does it work? The GBBC asks that you check off activity at your feeders for at least 15 minutes per day per location. You can obviously record hours upon hours, but only do that at one location. What that means is that you would fill up a checklist for address xyz and if you were to go to the neighborhood park that evening, you would then record a separate checklist for address abc. They do this to make sure that the results are as accurate to location as possible. The count begins on February 14 and continues through February 17. This gives you a lot of time to record and observe. This recording process is actually kind of fun because it shows you how many birds you have in your yard/your area. Do not restrict yourself to just your yard though. Take a walk out at Sullivan’s Island and record the seagulls. Go to the Battery and see what birds are in the trees. All of this research is helpful and valuable to Cornell, so the more checklists they receive, the more accurate their results will be and the more research they can pursue.

One of the biggest struggles that I run into with this is that I can struggle to identify the birds fast enough. Especially since it is in the winter. Some birds can lose their identifiable colors (e.g., goldfinches lose their yellow and become mostly brown), other birds might be migratory and so they are not here year round (e.g., chipping sparrows or Baltimore orioles). All of that being said, identifying all of these birds can be a challenge, especially when you are trying to record them for the GBBC. A nice thing about their roster sheet (pictured to the right) is that it provides the names of most (if not all) of the birds that you will find in your area which means you can familiarize yourself with some of the birds you are not familiar with a few days before the Count begins. You should also make an investment on an ID guide/book. These are wonderful resources that really teach you a good bit about a bird. Some can be very brief while others are extremely elaborate. If you are looking for something more in depth and informational, I would look at Crossley ID Guides, National Geographic Guides, or Sibley’s. Field guides are the simplest ID resource you can have and these look like simple brochures. The benefit of these is that they travel nicely and are usually waterproof. The drawback is that you hardly get any information about the bird you are identifying. My personal recommendation is to get Birds of the Carolinas by Stan Tekiela. I like this one the most because it is organized by color which makes it much easier to identify birds. This guide offers a decent amount of information on the birds as well and has some great photos. Lastly, a huge benefit of this guide is that it exhibits birds in our area. Anyone can find these guides at most bookstores (Buxton Books at 160 King St is my personal favorite) or Barnes & Noble. However, Wild Birds Unlimited Mt. Pleasant has a great selection ranging from simple to complex. Having a guide before the Count begins is a must if you want to make sure your recording is helpful, accurate, and complete.

Also keep in mind that some birds are out and about at different times of the day!

There are also apps for tablets and phones that are incredibly helpful. One of them is eBird which is the website where you will submit your checklists! You can submit directly from your phone, but eBird can also track your recordings for you, give you some surface level information about certain species, and lets you record without being connected to the internet. For identification, however, you should download the Merlin Bird ID app. This app is excellent and makes identification incredibly quick and easy. It asks you five simple questions in order to help narrow down the possibilities of what bird it might be in your yard. You can also upload your photos to the app for everyone’s benefit. There is also Audubon Bird Guide: North America app which is an excellent field guide that includes calls and songs. All of these apps are free and can make your life way easier.

Lastly, in order to prepare for the GBBC, give all of your feeders a quick clean and make sure that you have plenty of fresh food out for your birds. If you have been on the fence about getting a new type of feed or a new feeder, you need to put it out immediately if you are hoping that this new addition at your station is going to bump up your count. If you are planning of removing some brush or undergrowth that is near your feeders, I would wait until after the Count. Brush is a popular hangout spot for a lot of birds. Finally, be sure that you have water out. Birds always need water. It does not need to be in a fancy fountain or bath, just make sure there is a source out there for your birds.

Lastly, keep an eye out for our winter guests!

Hopefully all of us will have an amazing Count this year, so that we can all make sure that the folks at Cornell have the most accurate and helpful information for their research!

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