Birds, Birds Everywhere (Especially Up North)

(Originally posted on Green Among Gray on Feb. 11, 2009)
Doesn’t matter where you call home – from the heart of the city to the farthest-out exburb – birds flock (literally, ha!) to where you are. This makes it incredibly easy to observe them, which makes it incredibly easy for anyone to participate in a scientific study. “What scientific study?” you ask? We’ll get to the “what.” But first, the “why.”

As in, “why is it important to study birds?”

Other than because it’s just really cool (seriously, it is), a good reason to watch birds is because their habits can be predictors for larger events. It’s through analyzing data collected by regular citizens like you and me that Audubon was able to link birds’ ranges to climate change.

Their data show that over the last 40 years, 58% of the 305 bird species found in North America in winter have shifted their ranges northward, by an average of 35 miles. Audubon concludes that global warming is “by far the most probable explanation” for "this kind of spectacular movement across such a wide range of birds.”

And they make it easy, with help from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, for anyone to make a significant contribution to important discoveries like this. All you have to do is take part in one of their seasonal bird counts. I wonder if one is coming up anytime soon?

Well, lookee here! The Great Backyard Bird Count runs Feb. 13-16. To participate in the 12th annual event, all you have to do is keep track of the birds you see on any or all of those days, then enter them into the GBBC site. If you’re brand new to birding, these folks make it easy by providing a list of birds likely to be seen in your area.

For as little as 15 minutes of your time, you get to participate in a very valuable study; you get to become a scientist!

I spoke with Patricia Leonard of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to get some more insight into the event. Leonard says it’s “ridiculously easy” to get involved: “There's no fee, no registration. However, it would be a good idea to check out the web site ahead of time to familiarize oneself with what we're looking for and how to submit your bird checklist. There's also ID help on the site, including an online bird guide with pictures, sounds, and range information for 600 species of North American birds.”

And how does it work, exactly? First, I’d suggest the coziest chair you can wrangle outside, a thermos of whatever pleases you, a set of binoculars and a notepad and pen. Or, if you have a nice view through a window – say if you’re high atop a Captivate-enabled tower – you don’t even have to venture outdoors.

Leonard provides the details: “You can watch for as little as 15 minutes or for much longer. What you need to do is keep track of the highest number of each species you see at any one time (to prevent counting the same bird more than once). For example, if you're watching for 20 minutes and see 5 cardinals together, then 8 cardinals together, then 3 – the number you report in the end is eight: the highest number you saw together at once.”

Leonard also goes into the benefits (besides a relaxing day bonding with nature, along with the satisfaction of knowing you’re contributing to humankind’s understanding of the world) of participating: “After you've entered your first checklist there is an online survey you can take if you want to (but you don't have to). For completing the survey, you'll get a free month of access to the Birds of North America Online database – 18,000 web pages of information about North American breeding birds. You'll get a username and password to get that. We have a photo contest, a page for kids, and lots of great prizes we'll give away in a drawing from among the names of all GBBC participants – feeders, seed, software, and other ‘birdy’ items.”

So there really should be nothing stopping you. And if you’re a jaded urbanite, thinking, “yeah, actually putting a number to all those pigeons sounds like a load of fun,” consider this: There are plenty of cool species to be found in even the most overdeveloped cities.

“There are many other kinds of birds living [in the city] if you really look,” Leonard explains. “Some examples: American Robin, Baltimore Oriole, Cedar Waxwing, House Finch, Mallard (in park ponds), Peregrine Falcon (they sometimes nest on tall buildings or underneath bridges), and the American Crow. In fact we have an entire citizen-science project devoted to city birds called Celebrate Urban Birds!”

Get all the info you need at And if you participate, let us know about it by commenting below.

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“Birds, Birds Everywhere (Especially Up North)”