The story below is an excerpt from our Jan./Feb. 2016 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
It began as an experiment in February 1997, when a group of North American ornithologists set out to recruit birdwatchers who would transmit details of one weekend’s sightings over the new-fangled electronic system called the Internet. The trial run took place in winter, a previously ignored time of year for bird counts; to the experts’ surprise, tens of thousands participated.
“It turned out to be a whole lot more popular than anyone had estimated, and it created all sorts of problems with the volume of data that was coming in,” says Marshall Iliff, eBird project leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., who oversees the annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) in partnership with the National Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada. “The Internet servers of 18 years ago basically broke over the course of the weekend.”
Last year, the GBBC resulted in more than 147,000 checklists from over 100 countries. Unlike previous programs that often didn’t report findings until a year later, this one allows birdwatchers to instantly see maps and statistics from around the world.
“Birdwatchers tend to be pretty tech-savvy,” Iliff notes. “There’s just a natural instinct to record what you’re seeing. And the thing that was really brilliant about the Backyard Bird Count from the very beginning was that it gave a way to visualize the data in real time.”
A merger with eBird three years ago expanded the GBBC’s global reach, but the U.S. still leads in the number of checklists and species. Three of the top 10 states—Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia—are in the Blue Ridge region. And all 10 of the most frequently reported birds, including Northern cardinals, blue jays and black-capped chickadees, hail from the area. Says Iliff, “Participation is really, really good in the Southeast. There are a lot of people with bird feeders and a lot of people who take part in the count.”
In addition to the fun factor, the GBBC helps ornithologists monitor changes in bird populations, both good and bad. Recent counts have revealed an increase in black-bellied whistling ducks, Eurasian collared doves, and other non-native birds in the Blue Ridge states.
“And at the same time, there are some species we’re really concerned about,” says Iliff, “like the American kestrel, loggerhead shrike and Eastern meadowlark, all species that 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago, would have been really, really common across the Southeast. And they’re starting to disappear.”
During the four-day event in 2015, nearly half of the world’s species were spotted. “It really was an amazing testament to how connected this [birding] community is worldwide,” says Iliff. “To me it makes it really fun to know that there are people out on the same day, counting birds in India, the Philippines, Taiwan, Australia and Chile. This year we’re hoping to find more than half the birds in the world.” Also in 2016, birders will be able to drag and drop images next to their online checklists and streamline the process of posting photos.
Anyone can sign up, says Iliff. “You don’t have to be an expert birdwatcher. In almost every community, there are birding groups that go out and participate in this, so just watch your local newspaper or call up your local bird club.”
Be a Backyard Bird Watcher
The 19th annual Great Backyard Bird Count is slated for February 12-15 .
Here’s how to get involved:
Register at birdcount.org and download the instructions.
Keep track of how long you spend watching. Instead of counting intermittently throughout the day, block off 15-20 minutes and note the number and types of birds you spot. Optional: Upload your photos.