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Great Backyard Bird Count

By

Downy Woodpecker

The downy woodpecker is one of the most common backyard birds.

Jerry Acton

There is no better way to liven up the mid-winter doldrums than by participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count, an annual event that encourages birders and bird-lovers throughout North America to take a census of their local birds and submit their results to one of the largest birding citizen science projects in the world.

About the Great Backyard Bird Count

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is an annual four-day event every February. Organized by the National Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, the GBBC encourages an awareness of winter birds and coordinated efforts to study them. Participants count their local birds for a minimum of 15 minutes in any location they desire and submit count checklists of positively identified birds to be correlated with thousands of other count lists submitted from thousands of birders.

With so many participants, the GBBC collects massive amounts of data. That data is combined with information from the Christmas Bird Count and Project FeederWatch, both of which are more scientifically structured than the GBBC, to draw conclusions about winter birds. The data collected through the GBBC can help answer questions about…

  • Growth and decline of bird populations
  • Population distribution, including irruptions
  • Timing and extent of early migration
  • Avifauna diversity in different habitats
  • Winter climate effects on birds

Studying these issues through the GBBC and other citizen science projects can help direct conservation efforts to have the best effect to protect birds.

Participating in the GBBC

Everyone is welcome to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count, and the observations of both novice and experienced birders can be valuable. When counting birds, first note relevant habitat data that will be used to group each count checklist with similar results. Factors to note include:

  • Weather
  • Habitat type
  • Participant expertise
  • General location

The data submission form has simple checkboxes for these details and other information, and the form should be filled out as completely as possible. When counting the birds themselves, only the highest number – not the sum – of a single species seen during the count period should be reported. For example, if three purple finches are seen at once but they fly away, and a few minutes later five purple finches return, the number reported should be five, not the sum (eight). This ensures more accurate counting without overestimating the numbers of birds.

A different count checklist should be submitted for each day and each location a birder counts. One birder can submit multiple lists if they count in different areas, and each one adds more valuable data to the annual results. It is preferred that the data be entered online, but printed forms can be mailed in if necessary. Count lists must be submitted by March 1.

After the GBBC, or even while the Count is ongoing, participants can explore the data online to see lists submitted in different states and provinces, and when all the lists have been tallied top 10 lists of the most reported birds, most numerous birds and other statistics will be available.

GBBC Accuracy

When counting birds for the GBBC, accuracy is essential. At the same time, the Count is designed to be a fun event, and it isn't necessary to report every bird seen. If a bird cannot be positively identified, it does not need to be included on the count list – there is even a checkbox to indicate that not all observed birds are being reported.

To ensure accuracy with the GBBC, any rare bird sightings – unexpected vagrants, for example – will be verified by local experts before that count list is accepted. Similarly, extremely large flocks or unusually high count numbers will be verified. This helps keep the data accurate so the conclusions drawn from the GBBC will be as useful as possible.

The Great Backyard Bird Count gives every birder the chance to offer insights on their local birds. Those insights, when added to the data submitted by thousands of other counters, can encourage better bird conservation initiatives to help birds all year long, in backyards, reserves and sanctuaries everywhere.

Photo – Downy Woodpecker © Jerry Acton / GBBC

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