Nature lovers are encouraged to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count, hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, Feb. 17-20. Image courtesy of bhphotovideo.com.
Feb. 14, 2017
The first year my husband and I did the Great Backyard Bird Count, we were prepared to count birds and take names. On the weekend of the worldwide citizen scientist event, our covered 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 they darted back and forth taunting us. OK, back to them 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 wiley crows.
But thanks to participating in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count for several years, now we do know 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’ve also ID’d Carolina wrens, titmice, chickadees and finches at our feeders. And would you believe it in suburban Fort Worth - a red bellied woodpecker? We’re on a roll.
I’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. Peering into 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 them 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 will open up that you only noticed in passing before. Now I know that those pigeons moodily cooing in the trees are actually white wing doves. And that the beautiful song I used to think was from the flashy northern cardinal is really the riffing of the stubby 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 wren ID’d in the handbook is more personal now 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.