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Blane Klemek: Bird count fun, engaging and important

The National Audubon Society and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, along with partner Bird Studies of Canada, are once again sponsoring the annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). This year’s count, which marks the 16th annual, runs Feb. 15-18.

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.

New this year, the GBBC goes global. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Marshall Iliff, “This year’s count will give us a whole new perspective as sightings pour in from around the globe in real time. Millions of people encounter birds every day all over the world.”

“Imagine” adds Iliff, “what scientists will learn if each one of us shares observations from our own area?”

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, do nearly the same thing 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 began 15 years ago to enlist citizens of North America to help track species of birds and identify population trends of birds throughout the continent. It has turned out to be a very successful and exciting annual activity that more and more people are taking part in every year. Participants include individuals, groups of individuals, and organizations such as girl and Boy Scout troops, 4-H clubs, school classrooms, Audubon chapters, and others.

The location of each bird count can be virtually anywhere where birds can be observed; in your backyard, the countryside, national and state parks, wildlife refuges and management areas, city parks, or outside high-rise apartment’s or office building’s windows. The GBBC can be conducted out-of-doors or indoors, alone or as a group, or during the morning or evening hours. The beauty of the event is that you get to decide where, when, and with whom.

Last year during the 2012 GBBC, participants submitted 104,285 species checklists. And according to the GBBC website, “Snowy owls thrilled many participants when these striking birds-of-prey ventured south from the Arctic in record numbers.” Also noted on the website, scientists are predicting that, “U.S. and Canadian bird watchers will see an influx of red-breasted nuthatches and winter finches because of scarce food supplies on their northern wintering grounds.”

They might be right. I’ve observed an eruption of common red polls and an influx of pine grosbeaks at my feeders so far this winter.

Almost 17.4 million individual birds were counted for a grand tally of 623 species last year, which was 29 more species than observed during 2011’s count. That’s a lot of birds representing an impressive number of different species. And it was all done by people just like you and me: school children to senior citizens from all walks of life, beginners and expert birders alike.

You might be wondering why counting birds during the winter would be of interest to ornithologists. As you recall, last winter saw an invasion of snowy owls across much of northern Minnesota. Such a phenomenon is rare and the data generated by observers officially records important information about the birds. Ornithologists can then study how the abundance and distribution of species of birds may relate to variables such as food availability, weather, and environmental conditions.

Patterns of birds are constantly changing and information collected from the GBBC helps scientists identify, for example, a particular species of bird that may be in peril. Thus, timely management to reverse negative population trends of affected species can be recommended and, if possible, implemented.

Some of the questions that have been answered are simple, such as how far north American robins and northern cardinals are reported from. Trends such as the northeasterly and, in the case of Minnesota, northwesterly spread of red-bellied woodpeckers are noteworthy as well. For the second winter in a row, I’m enjoying the company of a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers at my home near Becida.

Participating in the GBBC is easy. All an observer is required to do is count birds for at least 15 minutes or for as long as he or she wishes during the specific dates of Feb. 15-18. Species checklists are available on the GBBC website or on request.

Participants are required to record the number of each species of bird observed together at one time. Afterwards, observers submit their observations to Cornell online. It’s that simple. Participants can also monitor and explore bird sightings maps, lists, charts and more as the GBBC gets underway.

Some of GBBC’s 2012 highlights included an abundance of snowy owls and common red polls in the “largest numbers ever recorded in the 15-year history (of the count).” Furthermore, likely in relation to last year’s mild winter across North America, participants recorded Eurasian collared-doves and great-tailed grackles in northerly locales, which is a good indication that the species’ range is expanding northward.

Another weather related occurrence (and likely inference) learned from last year’s count was from the abundance of red-winged blackbirds, sandhill cranes, and snow geese on the checklists. All three of these species were well into each of their northerly spring migrations at the time of last winter’s GBBC, undoubtedly hastened by 2012’s mild winter and early spring.

Learning how to participate in the 2013 GBBC or to view past year’s results can be found by visiting the GBBC website at Indeed, the Great Backyard Bird Count is an educational way to spend a few hours and participate in contributing important information about birds – now throughout the world – as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.


BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at