Great Backyard Bird Count Turns Five

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, February 15, 2002 (ENS) - At just five years old, the annual Great Backyard Bird Count is an environmental event still in its infancy. But in its short existence, this citizen driven bird census has already delivered reams of invaluable information on the status of North America's birds - data that could help save endangered species and keep common birds common.

white winged crossbill

The white winged crossbill, a bird adapted to prying open pine cones in northern forests, sometimes migrates south in harsh winters, the GBBC has shown (Photo by Warren Greene. All photos courtesy Cornell Lab of Orthithology)
The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), which this year falls on the weekend of February 15-18, has been collecting data about the vast majority of North American birds since 1998. The purpose of the count is to build a continent wide index to help researchers keep tabs on the distribution and abundance of bird populations over time.

Over the last half decade, more than 100,000 people have participated in the count.

"Our message for this landmark year of the Great Backyard Bird Count is simple and straightforward: help us continue building this important index of the birds we all so enjoy," said Frank Gill, vice president of science and conservation at the National Audubon Society, one of the Count's sponsors. "Only with the help of birders across the continent will we be able to monitor changes in the distribution and abundance of birds and determine measures necessary to ensure their protection."

To be part of the count, bird lovers across the nation are asked to take as little as 15 minutes on any or all of the four GBBC days to count the numbers and kinds of birds they see. They can count in their backyards, schoolyards, local parks, nature centers and sanctuaries, or other favorite birding location, including right out the office window.


Bird enthusiasts can help collect information about birds either at home or outdoors
GBBC participants are asked to count the highest number of each bird species seen at one time -to ensure the birds are not counted more than once - and keep track of the amount of time spent counting. Then they log onto the BirdSource website ( to make their reports.

Results from the count are updated hourly in the form of animated maps and colorful graphs for all to view online. Participants will be able to see almost immediately how their observations fit into the continent wide perspective.

Findings from previous years also are available at the site.

The snapshots of winter bird populations provided by the GBBC offer general information about trends across the continent. Count organizers at Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology say the counts also occasionally send up red flags indicating the need for further study.


GBBC participatants have helped show that not every wintering hummingbird in the Southeast is a ruby throat like this one (Photo by Mike Hopiak)
For example, the GBBC has helped to confirm that individuals of a number of hummingbird species spend their winters in the southeastern U.S. states, rather than in South America and the Caribbean, as previously thought.

"Through the GBBC, we connected with Louisiana hummingbird banders who told us an amazing story of 416 individuals of eight species banded last winter," write the GBBC directors on the BirdSource website. "The traditional wisdom of the 1970s was that any hummers occurring during the winter months in these states were vagrants or were ruby-throats that 'forgot' to migrate. We're learning a new lesson."

One of the species some participants may track this year is the snowy owl, a bird that has become widely recognized as a result of the immense popularity of the Harry Potter books and recent movie, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." In the series, Harry's pet is a snowy owl named Hedwig.

Snowy owls typically spend the year in the far north, feeding on lemmings in the Arctic tundra. But some winters - like this one - this food source reaches an extreme low, forcing many of the owls into areas farther south.

This winter, snowy owls have already made appearances in southern Maine, New Hampshire, upstate New York, North and South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and elsewhere. With help from GBBC participants, the whereabouts of snowy owls will be plotted on maps at the web site almost as soon as reports are made throughout the four count days.


Snowy owls, instantly recognizable to fans of Harry Potter, seem to be wintering farther south than usual this year
Special GBBC web pages will feature snowy owls and nine other North American owl species as well, representing a range of habitats and geographic locales. Species summaries, images, calls, and conservation status will be available at the web site. Two of the featured owls - short eared owl and elf owl - are on Audubon's Watch List because they are showing population declines. Another species, the burrowing owl, also is declining in parts of its range.

"Harry Potter mania has helped focus the nation's attention on owls and provides us with a unique opportunity to engage everyone, including children and their families, as participants in an event that will yield further insight into the birds' population status," said John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "At the same time, putting owls in the spotlight is an ideal way for people to learn about other kinds of birds as well."

Over the count's five year history, the counts by citizen scientists have helped researchers track winter finch invasions, investigate the correlation between snow cover and northerly distributions of American robins, and document the arrival of spring by following movements of blackbirds as they begin their migrations back to their breeding grounds.

"Given the many challenges now facing our nation, it's more urgent than ever that we continue to focus on those things most important to us," said Fitzpatrick. "Few things are more precious than our natural heritage. The Great Backyard Bird Count is an easy and enjoyable way to cast your vote, in a sense, to help ensure the birds and the habitats upon which they depend will be around for generations to come."

The GBBC is part of a suite of bird monitoring projects that include the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count and the Cornell lab's Project FeederWatch.


The BirdSource website includes information for teachers to help interest students, like these at Southwest Middle School in Orlando, Florida, in watching birds
Instructions on participating are available at the GBBC web site, as are results from previous counts. Visitors to the site can listen to bird songs, see bird images and learn about rare species and other species of conservation concern.

Material for classrooms, tips for bird feeding, and a how to guide for creating bird friendly yards are also available at the site.

For more information, and to participate in the count, visit: