Why the Great Backyard Bird Count is a hoot

How citizen science can connect you to nature. Photo courtesy of Storyblocks.

 Feb. 14, 2017

The first year my husband and I participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count, we were prepared to count birds and take names. On the weekend of the worldwide citizen scientist event, our canopied backyard deck in Fort Worth was our bird blind. Binoculars? Check. Bird guides? Check. Checklists? Check. 

Me looking through binoculars: “OK, we’ve got 5, 10, no wait 13....uh....BROWN birds over here.”

They flitted by in a mob. But wait — they weren’t all the same. Some looked short and stubby. Some looked lean and skinny. Were they sparrows, chickadees, wrens, finches? We flipped back and forth through our bird books as the birds darted back and forth, taunting us. OK, back to the brown birds later.

“There — up in that tree. Looks like, we’ve got one, two.....uh...BLACK birds. No make that BLUISH...”

Were they starlings, grackles, cowbirds? If they'd just stay still, maybe I could tell. 

Being nature lovers, we thought we knew our backyard birds. Wrong. Sure, there are the easy ones - the cardinals, the mockingbirds, the blue jays. Or another one of my favorites – the intrepid crows.

But thanks to participating in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count for several years, now we can ID some of the not-so-easy ones.

Like, we’re ALMOST completely sure those little brown birds are house sparrows. And the black birds are starlings. 

We can also pick out the Carolina wrens, titmice, chickadees and finches at our feeders. And would you believe in suburban Fort Worth we've seen a red bellied woodpecker? We’re on a roll. 

Great Horned OwlI’ve also come to rely on the Cornell Lab’s online bird guide. Each bird description features recorded song snippets. Listening to them, led me to figure out that we’ve got screech owls in our neighborhood. Listening in the dark, I can now distinguish their ghostly calls from the frogs. And we were thrilled one night when we heard hooting coming from an old dead tree in a neighbor’s yard. We headed out in the street with our binoculars. Despite the late hour, we blazenly trained our binocs just above the neighbor's roof. Sure enough, we spotted the silhouette of a GREAT HORNED OWL. Woo hoo! 

Great horned owl. Courtesy of the Nature Conservancy.

Yes, the sightings we upload every year for the backyard bird count are modest. But when compiled with sightings around the world, they add up. Researchers will use the information to track bird populations and migration patterns and help them understand the impact humans are having on wildlife. And Texans have a big role to play in conservation as we live in a bird rich state. According to the Audubon Society, Texas has 636 of the 957 bird species found in North America – more bird species than any state in the union.

Important stuff. But the cool thing is that a whole new world has opened up that we only noticed in passing before. Now I KNOW that those pigeons moodily cooing in the canopy are actually white wing doves. And that the piercing song I used to think was from the flashy northern cardinal is really the riffing of the humble Carolina wren. That those ducks flying south are actually cormorants who winter here. Turns out they fly over our house everyday on their daily commute to and from their roosting spot on the Trinity River. 

So that’s why I’m encouraging you to do the Great Backyard Bird Count. Because one thing I’ve learned over the years – one Carolina wren ID'd is better than two brown birds in the bush.

Great Backyard Bird Count

Hosted by: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society

About: Launched in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, the Great Backyard Bird Count was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time.

Now, more than 160,000 people of all ages and walks of life worldwide join the four-day count each February to create an annual snapshot of the distribution and abundance of birds.

When: Feb. 17-20, 2017

Where: In your backyard, a park, a nature center or whereever you choose. 





North Texas Wild: Ode to the Little Brown Bird

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