Blane Klemek column: Backyard bird count gives amateurs chance to contribute to science
The National Audubon Society and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology are once again sponsoring the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC).
This year's count, which marks the 13th year of the event, runs Feb. 12-15.
Over the years, this fun and engaging national project has attracted people of all ages and skill levels. And every year, more and more people participate.
Says Audubon Education Vice President, Judy Braus: "Taking part in the Great Backyard Bird Count is a great way to get outside with family and friends, have fun, and help birds, all at the same time. Even if you can only identify a few species you can provide important information that enables scientists to learn more about how the environment is changing and how that affects our conservation priorities."
What's more, the count can be conducted while enjoying the comforts of your own home. Simply sit back, observe and count and record the birds that visit your feeders. Or, you can participate by taking a short walk in your backyard, neighborhood, or park. It's all about watching birds and recording on a checklist what you see.
The GBBC is an annual citizen science project that has developed into an important nationwide scientific research project. Participation is free, educational, entertaining, and worthwhile. It has also become a very popular and easy-to-do school project for many teachers and students.
Ornithologists want to know where North American birds spend the winter.
Why? A better understanding of bird population dynamics may lead to better species management. To illustrate, Minnesota birders reported 344 great gray owls in February 2005. In 2006-2008, only three great gray owls were reported-one in each of those three years. Zero great gray owls were reported last year. Efforts like the GBBC help to identify trends as well as increasing our awareness of potential problems.
So, Audubon and Cornell would like to take another "snapshot" of our North American bird populations by enlisting your help. Last year, volunteers from every State and Canadian Province submitted more than 94,100 species' checklists. These checklists were represented by 620 species of birds and well over 11 million individual birds observed!
Furthermore, everyone's contribution is equally important. It doesn't matter whether your bird count is small and from your backyard feeder or large and from a nearby wildlife refuge, your bird checklist can help answer many questions about the health and status of bird populations.
Data from the GBBC has helped to track threatened species such as the peregrine falcon and has also helped scientists better understand a variety of ecological phenomenon such as winter irruptions. The count also helps to identify the most common birds wintering in North America.
In 2009, the 10 most reported species of birds on participants' checklists, beginning with the most frequently observed, were: northern cardinal, mourning dove, dark-eyed junco, American goldfinch, downy woodpecker, blue jay, house finch, tufted titmouse, American crow and black-capped chickadee.
However, the most numerous top-10 species of birds observed by GBBC participants were, topping the list: snow goose, Canada goose, American robin, European starling, American crow, common grackle, red-winged blackbird, American goldfinch, dark-eyed junco and pine siskin.
So, how do you participate? First, pick a time that will work for you from Feb. 12-15. Then, count the birds in your backyard, park, or any natural area you choose, on any of the four count-days. For each species observed, record the highest numbers of individuals that you see at any one time during your count.
What you want to avoid is adding a bird every time you see one at your feeder because you might be counting the same individual. It's also recommended that you watch your birds for at least 15 minutes on each day that you participate - a little longer would be best so you can get a good sense of what species of birds frequent your area.
Next, enter your count on-line at the GBBC Web site (see information below) and use the State/Province Checklist to submit your highest counts for that day. Finally, you can view your results after you have entered your day's data. Or, visit the Map Room to see results from across the continent.
Birders for Minnesota's GBBC reported some surprising results in 2009.
First off, 97 species were observed for 85,878 total individual birds. And guess what the most abundant species of bird was reported? No other species came close to the nearly 20,000 common redpolls that were counted last year (evidently an irruption year!).
Other commonly observed birds in Minnesota's GBBC included the mallard, black-capped chickadee, house sparrow, American goldfinch and pine siskin.
Some notable odd-ball sightings were the belted kingfisher, Townsend's solitaire, ruby-crowned kinglet, varied thrush and Lapland longspur.
One thing that surprised me once again when I examined last year's distribution of checklists submitted from across the state, was the lack of participation in northwestern Minnesota. Birders from St. Paul and Minneapolis were very well represented, in addition to birders from along the Minnesota River. But a big hole exists in the northwest.
Bemidji GBBC participants, however, were tied with Brainerd for 11th place in total checklists submitted (17). As well, for total species observed (25), Bemidji was tied for 14th place with seven other Minnesota cities.
Not bad, Bemidji birders!
For more information about the GBBC, visit the website at www.birdcount.org.
The Great Backyard Bird Count is coming soon! Indeed, it's a wonderful and worthy reason to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at email@example.com.