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Backyard Bird Count begins today

Julia Rubin, Associated Press
Posted 2/17/23

It’s a given that when the Great Backyard Bird Count begins today, Steve and Janet Kistler of Hart County, Kentucky, will be joining in.

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Backyard Bird Count begins today


It’s a given that when the Great Backyard Bird Count begins today, Steve and Janet Kistler of Hart County, Kentucky, will be joining in. They’ve done so every year since the now-global tradition began 25 years ago.

For Moira Dalibor, a middle-school math teacher a couple hours away in Lexington, this will be the first count. She’s leading a group of students and parents to an
arboretum for an exercise in data-gathering.

They’re expected to be among hundreds of thousands of people around the world — including hundreds of Mohawk Valley residents — counting and recording over four days. Last year, about 385,000 people from 192 countries took part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, or GBBC.

“Every year we see increased participation,” and 2022 was a big jump, says Becca Rodomsky-Bish, the project’s leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in Ithaca, N.Y., which organizes the count along with the National Audubon Society and Birds Canada.

This global data goes into the eBird database used by scientists for research on bird populations, which have declined sharply overall in past decades. It’s part of a rise in citizen science projects in which volunteers collect data about the natural world for use by researchers.

Many bird-watchers use eBird year-round, and it has collected huge amounts of data — often between 1 million and 2 million bird checklists a month from around the world in the past couple of years, says Rodomsky-Bish.

Those numbers help researchers track the ups and downs of various species, which then helps determine the direction of conservation efforts.

“The net number of birds around the world — we’re losing them,” says Rodomsky-Bish.

A 2019 study by Cornell researchers found there were 3 billion fewer birds in North America than in 1970.

“The bad news is that the declines are coming out strong and hard in the data,” Rodomsky-Bish adds. “The good news is if we didn’t have that data, we wouldn’t know. And that helps a lot of areas take direct action.”

The pandemic contributed to the surge in interest in the GBBC and birds in general, she says. “Birds were company during this period of isolation,” she says, and observing them “is an accessible way to connect with the natural world. Birds are everywhere. You don’t have to leave your house. They will come. … And they’re charismatic. They’re fun and fascinating to watch.”

Compared to other counts — including Audubon’s 123-year-old Christmas Bird Count and the Cornell Lab’s Project FeederWatch — the GBBC is accessible to beginners. Participants watch birds, whether that means looking out the window for 15 minutes or taking a longer trip to a nature area. Organizers recommend the Merlin bird ID app to distinguish birds by size, shape, song or other characteristics.

Many participants also carry field guides and binoculars along with their phones. They then enter the findings into the eBird app.

“Anyone can say, ‘I can contribute to science — it’s easy. I can identify one bird over a four-day period and I’ve done my part,’” says Rodomsky-Bish.

Counting in February, she says, provides a snapshot right before many birds start their annual migrations.

Dalibor, who teaches at the Redwood Cooperative School in Kentucky, has been preparing her classes with information about local species and practicing with the Merlin app. The kids will record bird sightings with pencils and clipboards, and parent volunteers will enter those numbers on their smartphones.

“It’ll be authentic data that we collected ourselves that real scientists are going to use. There’s purpose and action behind it, which is special for them, being connected to the wider world,” Dalibor says.

Giving young children an appreciation of nature is the priority for Ganeshwar SV, director of the Salem Ornithological Foundation in India. He helps get schools involved in conservation programs, including the GBBC, and says the goal “is not to count but to just enjoy birds.”


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