The Great Backyard Bird Count
A lot has changed since the first Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) was held in 1998. Each year brings unwavering enthusiasm from the growing number of participants in this now-global event. The 20th annual GBBC is taking place February 17 to 20 in backyards, parks, nature centers, on hiking trails, school grounds, balconies, and beaches – anywhere you find birds. Bird watchers count the birds they see for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count, then enter their checklists at birdcount.org. All the data collected contributes to a snapshot of bird distribution and helps scientists see changes over the past 20 years.
“The very first GBBC was an experiment,” says the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Marshall Iliff, a leader of eBird which collects bird observations globally every day of the year and is the GBBC’s online platform. “We wanted to see if people would use the internet to send us their bird sightings. Clearly the experiment was a success!” Bird watchers submitted about 13,500 checklists from the US and Canada that first year. In 2016, an estimated 163,763 bird watchers from over 100 countries submitted 162,052 bird checklists, reporting 5,689 species, more than half the known bird species in the world.
“The Great Backyard Bird Count is a great way to introduce people to participation in citizen science,” says Audubon vice president and chief scientist Gary Langham. “No other program allows volunteers to take an instantaneous snapshot of global bird populations that can contribute to our understanding of how a changing climate is affecting birds.” Varying weather conditions so far this winter are producing a few trends that GBBC participants can watch for. Reports on eBird show that more waterfowl and kingfishers are remaining further north than usual because they are finding open water. If that changes, these birds could move southward. Higher than usual numbers of bohemian waxwings in the Pacific Northwest and northern Rocky Mountains, and some winter finches have been spotted in the east, such as red crossbills, common redpolls, evening grosbeaks and pine grosbeaks. A few eye-catching snowy owls have been reported in the northern half of the United States. Jon McCracken, Bird Studies Canada’s national program director, reminds participants in Canada and the US to keep watch for them. He says, “The GBBC has done a terrific job of tracking irruptions of snowy owls southward over the past several years. We can’t predict what winter 2017 will bring, because snowy owl populations are so closely tied to unpredictable ‘cycles’ of lemmings in the Arctic. These cycles occur at intervals between two and six years. Nevertheless, there are already reports of snowy owls as far south as Virginia.”
In addition to counting birds, the GBBC photo contest has also been a hit with participants since it was introduced in 2006. Since then, tens of thousands of stunning images have been submitted. For the 20th anniversary of the GBBC, the public is invited to vote for their favorite top photo from each of the past 11 years in a special album they will find on the GBBC website home page. Voting takes place during the four days of the GBBC. Learn more about how to take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count at birdcount.org, where downloadable instructions and an explanatory PowerPoint are available.