Keeping citizen scientists happy

2016-11flamm-fest-participants-in-2005

Citizen scientists were recruited by the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (now the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies) to look for Flammulated Owls in the Medicine Bow National Forest in southern Wyoming in the summer of 2005. Mark and I are standing in front of the sign.

Published Nov. 13, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Turning Citizens into Scientists”

Note: The first Wyoming Citizen Science Conference is being held Dec. 1-3, 2016, in Lander. All current and would-be citizen scientists studying birds or any other natural science are welcome. See http://www.wyomingbiodiversity.org.

How to keep a citizen scientist happy

By Barb Gorges

A year after I married my favorite wildlife biologist, he invited me on my first Christmas Bird Count.

It was between minus 25 and minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit that day in southeastern Montana, with snow on the ground. He asked me to take the notes, which meant frequently removing my thick mittens and nearly frostbiting my fingers.

I am happy to report that 33 years later, my husband is the one who takes the notes and the Christmas Bird Count has become a family tradition, from taking our first son at eight months old and continuing now with both sons and their wives joining us.

The Christmas Bird Count started in 1900 and is one of the oldest examples of citizen science, sending ordinary people (most are not wildlife biologists) out to collect data for scientific studies.

In 1999, I signed up for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch and have continued each year. Last season 22,000 people participated. In 2010 I started entering eBird checklists and now I’m one of 327,000 people taking part since 2002. And there are nearly a dozen other, smaller, CLO projects.

It is obvious CLO knows how to keep their citizen scientists happy. Part of it is that they have been at it since 1966. Part of it is they know birdwatchers. That’s because they are birdwatchers themselves.

How do they keep us happy? I made a list based on my own observations—echoed by an academic paper I read later.

First, I am comfortable collecting the data. The instructions are good. They are similar to something I do already: keeping lists of birds I see. The protocol is just a small addition. For instance, in eBird I need to note when and for how long I birded and at least estimate how many of each species I saw. It makes the data more useful to scientists.

Second, I am not alone. The Christmas Bird Count is definitely a group activity, which makes it easy for novice birders to join us. I especially love the tally party potluck when we gather to share what the different groups have seen that day.

Project FeederWatch is more solitary, but these days there are social aspects such as sharing photos online. Over President’s Day weekend when the Great Backyard Bird Count is on, I can see animated maps of data points for each species. On eBird, I can see who has been seeing what at local birding hotspots.

Third, I have access to the data I submitted. Even 33 years later, I can look up my first CBC online and find the list of birds we saw, and verify my memories of how cold it was in December 1983.

The eBird website keeps my life list of birds and where I first saw them (OK, I need to rummage around and see if I can verify my pre-2010 species and enter those). It compiles a list of all the birds I’ve seen in each of my locations over time (89 species from my backyard) and what time of year I’ve seen them. All of my observations are organized and more accessible than if I kept a notebook. And now I can add photos and audio recordings of birds.

A fourth item CLO caters to is the birdwatching community’s competitive streak. I can look on eBird and see who has seen the most species in Wyoming or Laramie County during the calendar year, or who has submitted the most checklists. You can choose a particular location, like your backyard, and compare your species and checklist numbers with other folks in North America, which is instructive and entertaining.

I would take part in the CBC and eBird just because I love an excuse to bird. But the fifth component of a happy citizen scientist is concrete evidence that real scientists are making use of my data. Sometimes multiple years of data are needed, but even reading a little analysis of the current year makes me feel my work was worthwhile and helps me see where my contribution fits in.

What really makes me happy is that I have benefitted from being a citizen scientist. I’m a better birder, a better observer now. I look at things more like a scientist. I appreciate the ebb and flow of nature more.

If you have an interest in birds, I’d be happy to help you sort through your citizen science options. Call or email me or check my archival website listed below, or go to http://www.birds.cornell.edu.

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Gifts for birdwatchers and birds

Bird-friendly coffee

Try some bird-friendly coffee from the folks who bring you the International Migratory Bird Day catalog, Environment for the Americas.

Published Dec. 12, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Make this Christmas a holiday for the birds.”

2014 Update: All the phone numbers originally listed in this column have been converted to website addresses for your convenience. The prices, however, have not been updated, and there are many new bird books.

By Barb Gorges

Satisfying the wild bird lover on your Christmas gift list can be as easy as buying a sweatshirt decorated with chickadees, a clock with bird song chimes or chirping plush toys, not to mention fine bird art in all kinds of media.

However, none of these gifts do much for the birds themselves unless part of the profits benefits bird conservation.

Consider turning the wild bird lover into a knowledgeable bird watcher who can contribute to citizen science bird counting efforts such as the Christmas Bird Count, the Great Backyard Bird Count or Project Feederwatch.

You could start by picking up the basic field guide, “Birds of North America” by Kenn Kaufman, for about $15 at a local bookstore and a pair of 7 x 35 Bushnell binoculars at Kmart for about $25.

If your bird watcher is more advanced, you’ll have to do some sleuthing. Do they already have a copy of “The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior” or “A Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies” by James Bond?

Don’t try to pick out binoculars for the advanced birder. Pricey models have too many variables that must fit the individual user’s eyes.

Does your bird watcher subscribe to Bird Watcher’s Digest, http://www.birdwatchersdigest.com, or Birder’s World [now called BirdWatching magazine], http://www.birdwatchingdaily.com?

Both magazines are filled with advertising for all kinds of bird identification and observation gizmos, even special clothing such as field vests with pockets designed to fit field guides.

 

Chocolate

Organically grown chocolate is good for bird habitats.

However, all the latest bird watching accoutrements advertised in those magazines are merely trappings of a personal hobby and won’t help the birds if the bird watcher doesn’t share their observations and knowledge.

Feeding wild birds can be a hobby that benefits some kinds of birds directly. The gift ideas range from a simple shelf and a bag of black oil sunflower seed to elaborate spring-loaded, squirrel-proof dispensers and custom seed blends.

Don’t forget water. A large plastic dog dish filled less than 2 inches deep is easy to bring in and thaw under the kitchen tap if you aren’t ready to finance a heated bird bath.

There are other gifts that delight the bird lover/watcher and benefit birds. Three major bird conservation organizations provide informative and colorful magazines as part of membership: National Audubon Society (find your local chapter, http://www.audubon.org/search-by-zip), Cornell Lab of Ornithology, http://www.birds.cornell.edu, and American Birding Association, http://aba.org.

Perhaps the person on your gift list is already a member and is ready for a more altruistic gift. You can make a donation in their name to that organization or pick one of the many others such as the American Bird Conservancy http://www.abcbirds.org.

Maybe you are the kind person who remembers your pets at Christmas and would like to do something for the birds too. Here are suggestions.

–Avoid planting trees in grassland bird habitat. Plant more fruiting trees in town.

–Keep your cat indoors or on a leash or in a kennel at all times.

–Lobby for bird-friendly legislation and policies. It isn’t as much fun as counting birds for scientific study, but protecting habitat is the most efficient way to help wild birds.

–Conserve resources, “reduce, recycle, reuse.” Owning too much stuff wastes energy and resources which require mining, drilling, timbering, spraying – all activities usually detrimental to birds. Besides, the simple life will give you more time to enjoy bird watching.

Actually, these suggestions would all make good New Year’s resolutions.

When your shopping is done and you can finally put your feet up, you’ll be happy to know there are things you can consume, of which every ounce helps birds.

Shade-grown coffee and organic chocolate are grown in the shade of forest trees, the time-honored family farmer’s method, in Central and South America, where our neotropical birds spend the winter. The mega-farms use new varieties that require sun, which requires cutting the forests and spraying the crops, leaving no place for birds.

Jane Dorn was telling me last week that she read that the particular bee that pollinates coffee plants prefers shade, so shade-grown plants are also much more productive than those receiving chemical fertilizers.

Locally, organic coffee is offered by Coffee Express, Starbucks and sometimes City News.

If you do an Internet search, the key phrases are “organic chocolate,” which will give you mouth-watering sites like Dagoba Organic Chocolate http://www.dagobachocolate.com, and “shade-grown coffee,” where I found gourmet blends offered by Grounds for Change, http://www.groundsforchange.com.

Finally, one of the best gifts you can give someone is your time. Arrange to take your friend or family on a little bird watching field trip, either your own itinerary or with a group. The memories of real birds will be more valuable than any flock printed on a sweatshirt.

Can birds save the world?

The Audubon climate change study shows that by 2080, Black-billed Magpies, a common species in Wyoming, would lose 86 percent of its summer range and 51 percent of its winter range, predictions prove true. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Audubon climate change study shows that by 2080, Black-billed Magpies, a common species in Wyoming, would lose 86 percent of its summer range and 51 percent of its winter range, if predictions prove true. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Oct. 26, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Can birds save the world?”

By Barb Gorges

Last month, the National Audubon Society publicized the result of a seven-year study to determine what would happen to North American birds if the change in climate continues as predicted.

The startling conclusion is that by 2080, nearly half our bird species, 314 (588 were studied), would have a hard time finding the food and habitat they need. They probably would not adapt, since evolution normally needs more than 65 years. So they could become extinct.

“OK,” some people say, “big deal, I’ve never seen more than three kinds of birds anyway.”

That attitude was prevalent in the 1960s when eagles began producing eggs with shells so thin, the weight of the incubating parent crushed them.

“So what?” people said back then, especially if eagles made them and their lambs nervous.

The culprit was discovered to be DDT. And it was discovered to do nasty things to people as well. So you might say that birds saved the world from DDT (except it continues to be produced to control malaria).

Last month, the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society celebrated its 40th anniversary. John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, was keynote speaker at the banquet: “How Birds Can Save the World.”

Fitzpatrick’s premise is that birds are so many species of canaries in the coal mine. Or, to localize the analogy, so many sage-grouse in the oil patch. We should pay attention to what they are trying to tell us, before we hurt ourselves.

The Audubon report makes predictions based on two long-term, continent-wide citizen science efforts: the Christmas Bird Count (begun in 1900) and the Breeding Bird Survey (begun in 1966).

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology itself is well-known for citizen science projects such as Project FeederWatch and the Great Backyard Bird Count. But the one that has mushroomed into a global phenomenon is eBird (www.eBird.org).

People who enjoy birdwatching have learned over the last 10 years to put just a little extra effort into it by counting birds they see and entering their notes online. Scientists can now see where bird species go and when, as if they have radar running year round. The more people enter observations, the clearer the picture emerges. And population changes are clearer, too.

When bird numbers change, or populations move, it’s due to one or more changes in the species’ environment. Some can be directly attributed to people, such as building a subdivision over a burrowing owl colony, and some indirectly, like climate change causing nectar-producing flowers to bloom too early for migrating hummingbirds.

Back in the 1970s, saving the environment always seemed to mean doing without, like hippies living off the grid. To some extent, curbing our desire for items built with planned obsolescence, like the latest smartphone, would preserve a little more landscape.

But Fitzpatrick’s contention is that we can live smarter, rather than poorer, have our cake and eat it too, have our lifestyle and our birds.

We need creative people. For instance, I read 400,000 acres of California cropland is barren for lack of water this year. Yet power companies are stripping vegetation in the Mohave Desert to build arrays of solar panels. What if farmers rented out those barren fields for temporary solar installations?

There’s work being done on solar paving. Imagine a sunny city like Los Angeles being able to power itself from all its lesser used streets, rather than depending on the transmission of electricity across hundreds of miles.

What if we put as much effort as we put into getting man on the moon into finding ways for every part of the country to produce energy in a way that keeps birds happy and us healthy?

I’m not an engineer, and probably neither are you. There is a shortage of them in this country. How can we raise more engineers and research scientists?

Take kids birdwatching. No, this isn’t exactly one of Fitzpatrick’s fixes. It’s mine.

What are your kids doing on Saturday mornings? Watching cartoons and competing in athletics are all well and good. But what birdwatching does for children, and the rest of us, is to make us ask questions about the birds and their behaviors, to research, to communicate with others, and now, to search the eBird database.

When children develop these habits of curiosity through birds–or other disciplines–they begin to see themselves in the sciences, in engineering, in technology, in all those “hard” subjects. And we will have the creative minds we need.

Our local Audubon chapter, now age 40, will continue with its traditional field trips (open to accompanied children and recorded for eBird, of course), educational meetings and projects, habitat improvements, and conservation advocacy. But watch for those special opportunities to introduce your children, grandchildren or neighbor children to birds. Because birds can save the world.

Winter bird survey review

Townsend's Solitaire

The Townsend’s Solitaire is a winter visitor in Cheyenne, Wyo. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published March 20, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Winter bird surveys contrast with backyard experience.”
2014 Update: Visit Project FeederWatch at http://feederwatch.org, the Great Backyard Bird Count at http://gbbc.birdcount.org/ and the Christmas Bird Count at http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count.

By Barb Gorges

“….For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come….”
Song of Solomon

Though the spring equinox is today, we Wyomingites hope to have a few snowstorms yet. In our climate, our definition of spring as an improvement over winter does not include the cessation of precipitation, especially in a drought year.

However, a sure sign of spring is always the house finches’ increased singing—males advertising for mates and defending territories.

But before rhapsodizing about spring, let’s review the winter.

My own backyard has been abysmal. I count birds every Saturday and Sunday November through March for Project FeederWatch. Though I don’t watch the feeders every minute, I’ve been hard pressed to count more than one or two birds per weekend the last couple months.

Last weekend I thought I would finally have a chance to check the “no birds observed” box on the report form, but then about 5:30 p.m. Sunday there was a flutter around the sunflower seed feeder for a few minutes. Five house finches, one house sparrow plus a crow flying overhead seemed like a bonanza.

I think back to other winters and wonder if the lack of birds is due to mild weather, an unseen predator (there was a sharp-shinned hawk in the backyard tree last week), or some avian complaint about our seed and feeders.

In desperation, we’ve finally put out millet, hoping to attract house sparrows so that their loud chatter will advertise our yard.

Last week’s mail brought the Thanksgiving Bird Count report for 2002. Twenty reports were submitted from Wyoming listing a total of 27 species.

Many were birds common to Cheyenne backyards (each species name is followed by the number of individuals observed statewide): house sparrow (240), house finch (94), American goldfinch (46), pine siskin (29), black-capped chickadee (18), rock dove (17), mountain chickadee (11), dark-eyed junco (9), blue jay (8), European starling (7), red-breasted nuthatch (4), northern flicker (3), evening grosbeak (3), downy woodpecker (2).

Obviously, some Wyoming backyards are more rural and were able to add these species to the report: Canada goose (45), western scrub jay (32), gray-crowned rosy finch (21), black-billed magpie (9), song sparrow (8), Cassin’s finch (8), horned lark (7), American tree sparrow (7), Steller’s jay (3), ring-necked pheasant (1) and Clark’s nutcracker (1).

The sage sparrow (11) and spotted towhee (1) appeared to have put off migration past their typical departure dates.

The Christmas Bird Count isn’t very indicative of backyard birds since we go out along the creeks and lakes looking for birds, although the flock of Eurasian-collared doves, first timers on the Cheyenne CBC, is still showing up regularly at the same feeder.

The Great Backyard Bird Count, held Feb. 14-17, does not restrict observers to their backyards as evidenced by 69 species reported for Wyoming including bald eagles and trumpeter swans.

The top 10 species reported in Wyoming (each followed by the number of reports it appeared in and the total number of individuals reported) were: house sparrow (64, 1590), house finch (50, 580), black-capped chickadee (49, 171), European starling (35, 1240), pine siskin (33, 775), northern flicker (31, 47), downy woodpecker (31,
50), black-billed magpie (28, 98), American goldfinch (26, 294) and common raven (10, 70).

The four reports submitted for Cheyenne list only Canada goose, gadwall, mallard, rock dove, downy woodpecker, American crow, white-breasted nuthatch, dark-eyed junco and house sparrow.

No house finches. Four reports are not a good statistical sampling, but in view of my own backyard experience this winter, maybe it means something. You can check the data at http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc/results.htm.

Project Feederwatch data is also interesting, however, it needs to be examined species by species. The reports submitted online are already available, but it will be months before the results from observers using paper forms will show.

I find it fascinating to look at the animated maps and see how observations for a species change over the course of the winter. Check for yourself at  http://birds.cornell.edu/PFWMaproom.html.

Meanwhile, the millet we put out is attracting squirrels. House finches are singing in the neighborhood and I hope to hear them soon in my own yard.

Finding winter robins online

American Robin

American Robins overwinter in Cheyenne, in small numbers. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published March 22, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Who’s keeping count? Lots of folks.”

2014 Update: Explore the data of these Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society citizen science projects: http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count; http://gbbc.birdcount.org/; http://feederwatch.org/. The Thanksgiving Bird Count results are not online.

By Barb Gorges

Signs of spring 2001:

March 1- Robin flies over Rossman School.

March 7 – Crocus shoots visible in the school bird garden.

March 8 – Ragged skein of geese flying north but so high as to be barely visible to the naked eye. Obviously not the local overwintering flock flying low in and out of city parks.

March 8 – Distinctive killdeer call floats through open car window while driving Avenue C.

March 10 – Worm lying on sidewalk in front of B & B Appliance, while snow falls.

Seeing robins is not a very reliable sign of spring, not because we get snow so late in the spring, but because we have robins that spend the winter.

The proof came while I was comparing results of the Thanksgiving Bird Count, Christmas Bird Count, Great Backyard Bird Count and Project FeederWatch to see if together these surveys could tell me anything about winter bird abundance and movement.

Because the counts don’t use the same protocols each count’s data is best compared to its own, from year to year or by location.

The TBC and PFW are strictly bird feeder counts; the CBC surveys 15-mile diameter circles and the GBBC is a hybrid of feeder and park counts.

Each count reports data differently too. This year the CBC reported how it takes into account the number of observers and the amount of time they spend. For each species counted in a circle, the CBC lists the total number of individual birds as well as the number seen per “party hour” (because birders go out in parties).

As CBC observers are free to count anywhere within the circle, the data don’t tell you, for example, that they went straight to a preferred habitat to count geese, such as Holliday Park.

As long as observers go there each year, the numbers of geese can be compared from year to year–unless next year there are half as many geese at the park because the other half are in a feeding frenzy over some spilled corn somewhere else. But hopefully local birders know that.

Numbers reported for the GBBC have not yet been adjusted for the number of observers and there’s been an increase in participation. Last year 98 counts, or checklists, were submitted from 23 locations in Wyoming. This year 202 checklists were submitted from 35 locations.

Cheyenne submitted seven in 2000 and 16 in 2001.

PFW is probably the most reliable way to compare bird movement and abundance over the course of one winter. But again, every observer doesn’t always report for every time period.

The key to a well-designed scientific study, as kids participating in science fairs learn, is to have a minimum number of variables. A bird study should be conducted at the same time of day and year, for the same length of time, in the same place, by the same person with an unchanging level of skill, if we truly want to look for changes in the numbers of birds over time. Spring breeding bird surveys performed by ornithologists do that.

But the other hallmark of a good study is replication, or in this case, the number of observers submitting data.

This season the TBC had 449 counters from the 13 westernmost states. The latest CBC had more than 45,000 participants counting 63 million birds. About 4.5 million birds were documented in 52,000 GBBC checklists last month. Fifteen thousand people participated in PFW.

Besides tracking bird populations in a general way, another benefit of all these counts is that more people get interested in bird conservation. But us backyard bird watchers need a way to get a handle on the tremendous amount of data generated.

One way is to track just one species.

So, where has our sign of spring, the American robin, been all winter?

The TBC, held Nov. 23, 2000, rated the robin as 20th in abundance, out of 179 reported. They were reported in all 13 westernmost states except Hawaii, Alaska, Arizona and Wyoming. Montana only reported one.

There were only 23 counts submitted from eight Wyoming locations, so in a strictly feeder-based count, it would be easy to overlook a bird that in winter prefers berries hanging on trees to seed in feeders.

For the CBC, each circle’s count is one day long, scheduled sometime between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. Three robins were seen in Cheyenne Dec. 30. That’s 0.114 birds per party hour.

Fourteen out of 18 Wyoming count circles saw robins. The Kane count, up along the Big Horn Reservoir near Lovell, listed 400 robins. Casper counted 99.

The GBBC, a feeder-based count held Feb. 16-19 this year, listed 150 robins for Wyoming. According to the map, none were seen in Cheyenne, 5-10 in Casper and a bunch in the Big Horn Basin.

PFW will have data from Nov. 11, 2000 through April 6. So far, the animated map for robins in November through February shows concentrations on the West coast and along the Colorado Front Range. Little blips of robins show up in Wyoming from time to time. A lot of robins showed up on Wayne Tree’s informal Best Backyard e-mail list for February.

Either robins are flocking to backyards in western Montana (where most of his contributors live) or birders are picking the robin as their favorite over the winter regulars because the winter’s been long and they’re ready for a sign of spring.

Robin sightings will increase with the coming of spring, partly because we spend more time out in the increasingly pleasant weather, but mostly because most robins did leave for the winter and are flocking back to southeastern Wyoming for our hospitable trees and tasty–but only seasonally available–worms.

 

 

Great Backyard Bird Count 2004

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Published Feb. 12, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Backyard bird count migrates back again.”

2014 Update: Visit http://gbbc.birdcount.org/.

By Barb Gorges

“One junco, two sparrows, three house finches….”

It must be time again for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count. According to scientists at Birdsource, the cooperative effort of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, which sponsors it, Friday through Monday, Feb. 13-16, is the time to document birds at the end of winter, to count survivors before migration.

The tally dates may be a little premature this far north, but Wyoming birders have jumped right into their roles as citizen scientists. Last year 115 reports, or checklists, from 32 towns and cities were turned in. Casper turned in the most reports, 10, and Powell recorded the most species, 29. Cheyenne submitted four reports for a total of nine species of birds.

The GBBC has taken full advantage of computer technology. No need for count compilers or for coordinated outings. Anyone can take part and enter their own data on their own computer or on a computer at the library and there is no charge. The GBBC Web site, http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc, even promotes it as a family-friendly activity.

All the directions and help needed to participate in the seventh annual count are on the Web site.

First, print out a checklist of the birds to be seen in your area. One option is a list of backyard birds. For Cheyenne, it is a list of about 20 species. The other option is a complete list of 138 species that have been reported on the GBBC over the last six years.

Not all counting is done in the backyard, as illustrated by the inclusion of two dozen waterfowl species, unless, as one Wyoming report indicated, the backyard is in Yellowstone National Park.

If some of the birds are not familiar, look them up in the “Learn about birds” section.

Count in one or more locations over one or more of the four days, but keep separate records for each count. Each time, watch the birds for at least 15 minutes (preferably 30).

Watch at a bird feeder or walk the neighborhood or park, but walk less than one mile.

Record the species seen and the largest number of individuals of a species seen at any one time. Don’t count the same chickadee each time it flies in to pick up a seed.

Submit this checklist report online. Then, as the weekend progresses, check out the Map Room for the results across the continent.

Last year 47,740 checklists were submitted, documenting over four million individual birds of 573 species. The house sparrows in one backyard may not seem important, but as part of this massive amount of data, Birdsource scientists say they contribute to an overall picture and understanding of North American birds.

To improve checklists from all backyards, the GBBC Web site also includes links to information about creating bird friendly yards and feeding wild birds. Then, with a little work the count next year might be, “One sharp-shinned, two waxwings, three downy woodpeckers….four blue jays, five creepers, six goldfinches….”

Great Backyard Bird Count needs you

bird feeder

House Finches at bird feeder. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Feb. 17, 2000, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Great Backyard Bird Count needs you”

Update 2014: The GBBC website is http://gbbc.birdcount.org/

By Barb Gorges

Compared to the venerable Christmas Bird Count, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in December, the Great Backyard Bird Count is just a flash in the pan of data.

Beginning Friday and continuing through Monday, this year’s count will be only the third annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC).

Born of a need for data rather than an update of previous traditions, it is a computer project.

The institutional sponsors, the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, want to track patterns of bird abundance and distribution. They decided to call on the 60 million bird watchers around the country for help collecting data, whatever their level of expertise in bird identification and even if they only count for half an hour.

Over time, the data will show if some species are declining in population like the red-headed woodpecker or, for species like the bald eagle, how fast they are making a comeback.

To take part in this count you need access to the Internet; at home, work, a friend’s, the library, or by calling me (see 2014 update).

For this modern count there are no Audubon chapter count compilers, no paper maps of count circles and no potlucks at the end of the day. Instead, it’s just you and the birds in your own backyard, and then you and the computer as you submit a count for any or each of the four count days.

But your bird watching doesn’t have to be solitary. The GBBC is so young, we can make up our own traditions with family or friends. We could invite our neighbors over to observe our bird feeders over lunch one day and observe their birds the next.

Or we could take a little stroll around the neighborhood together. I know there are flickers on my street. They just never show up in my backyard.

Classrooms around the country are also participating. At the GBBC website, under “Let’s Learn About Birds” there are excellent teachers’ tips and a six-page bibliography of birding books and media, including juvenile fiction/nonfiction and a glossary of terms.

Other pages on the website – tips on using binoculars and a guide to 50 common backyard birds, including sound clips, range maps and interesting info about each – will improve everyone’s level of expertise.

Participation in the GBBC has grown about as fast as personal computer ownership. According to statistics provided by Jackie Cerretani of the Cornell lab, Wyoming’s participation was only 118 counts of the 42,000 submitted nationally last year, but it was up from 19 counts in 1998.

The beauty of computer data collection is that it’s compiled so quickly that even the first day of the count you will be able to see results posted on the Web site.

And then we’ll know just where our usual Cheyenne winter birds are hiding out during this mild excuse for a winter.