Counting Birds

If counting the birds at your feeder and reporting to a national database doesn’t sound like fun, what can I say? Just try it and see why people from every US state and Canadian province report birds each week from November through March.

Once you decide to report, you’ll start to notice when the extra cardinals come from the neighbors’ yards at sunset, and when their blue jays invade your own jays’ territory at sunup. You’ll know when your three chickadees sadly become only two during midwinter. When it snows, the juncos will sometimes outnumber the house sparrows out there.

Thanks to Terry Sohl for excellent picture.

Gradually you will recognize visitors you had overlooked. A tree sparrow or a spiffy Harris sparrow at the edge of the crowd under the feeder.  Red and gold finches among the sunflower seed eaters.

You won’t miss the drama when the downy becomes motionless on the suet and every bird on the ground disappears into the bushes. On lucky days, the Cooper’s hawk shows itself, sometimes you’ll even see it swoop in. Moments before, a bluejay had screamed just before birds scattered, but bluejays scream all day, and yet the birds knew to dive for cover or freeze in place. Soon they’ll help you sense the presence of the hawk you can’t see.

As you form a habit of naming each bird for a report, you’ll discover birds that don’t come often – cedar waxwings in a bunch when the crabapples are soft, bluebirds at the bird bath.  Your skills honed, you’ll be ready when the unexpected red-shafted flicker or the yellow-bellied sapsucker lands in your yard.

By the end of February, the scattered groups of each species will be pairing up, the first clear sign of spring. Soon after, house finches and cardinals will sing the first spring songs.

Listening for songs is hard to learn without something to make it a habit. On reporting days you don’t want to miss anything, so you take a quick walk around the house, and listen. Eventually you hear an unusual song, and you discover that Carolina wrens live in the woodpile long before they show themselves. With this training during the winter, you’ll be ready for April phoebes, thrashers and orioles!

They call it citizen science: connected by crowd sourcing, untrained observers can provide the raw data for researchers to analyze. Feederwatch.org leads window observers to report on the same 2 days each week through the winter. If something in a report sounds unexpected, the site will ask for details or a photo, and it’s easy to correct your report. You watch whatever time you want, and report the most individuals of each type you see at any single time.  To avoid recounting the same bird, if you see 2 robins and later see 3, you report only 3 for the whole period.

Ebird.org is related but does not have the 2-day format. You can report to ebird any time, and eventually you have saved your own bird list.

A good time to start is the Great Backyard Bird Count (gbbc.birdcount.org). On one 4-day weekend, February 16-19, 2018, you save one or more lists from times and locations of your own choosing. You can start any day now to scout your neighborhood for the ravine where a flock of mourning doves winter, or the field terraces where meadowlarks shelter.

Databases from all three of these projects are open for anyone to explore. Look for one species over its whole range, one location over time, or for all birds listed at one hot spot, county or state. Research based on this information is reported on these websites as well as in a wide range of birding publications, and is yielding understanding of bird responses to climate change. Equipment can be as simple or elaborate as you wish, and two of the three websites require no fees to sign up.

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