The Great Backyard Bird Count Makes Everyone a Scientist

    17 February 2023

    The Great Backyard Bird Count begins today.

    About 385,000 people from 192 countries take part in the yearly project to count birds. The event was first held 25 years ago.

    Steve and Janet Kistler from the American state of Kentucky are among those taking part. They have done so every year since the now-international tradition started in 1998.

    FILE - This image provided by Macaulay Library/Cornell Lab of Ornithology shows a winter wren. (James Davis/Macaulay Library/Cornell Lab of Ornithology via AP)
    FILE - This image provided by Macaulay Library/Cornell Lab of Ornithology shows a winter wren. (James Davis/Macaulay Library/Cornell Lab of Ornithology via AP)

    For Moira Dalibor, a schoolteacher from nearby Lexington, this is her first event. She is leading a group of students and parents to a garden to collect data.

    Becca Rodomsky-Bish is the project's leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in Ithaca, New York. The laboratory organizes the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) along with the National Audubon Society and Birds Canada.

    "Every year we see increased participation," and 2022 was a big jump, Rodomsky-Bish said.

    In India, which had the highest participation outside the U.S. last year, tens of thousands of people submitted bird checklists. That was a 28 percent increase from 2021.

    The worldwide data goes into the eBird database used by scientists for research on bird populations. The GBBC is part of a rise in "citizen science" projects in which volunteers collect data about the natural world for use by researchers.

    Rodomsky-Bish said many birdwatchers use eBird year-round, and it has collected huge amounts of data — often between 1 million and 2 million bird checklists a month from around the world in the past couple of years. The information helps researchers track the numbers of different kinds of birds, which then helps with conservation efforts.

    Overall, "The net number of birds around the world — we're losing them," said Rodomsky-Bish.

    A 2019 study by Cornell researchers found there were 3 billion fewer birds in North America than in 1970.

    "The bad news is that the declines are coming out strong and hard in the data," Rodomsky-Bish added. "The good news is if we didn't have that data, we wouldn't know. And that helps a lot of areas take direct action."

    The pandemic helped to increase interest in the GBBC and birds in general, Rodomsky-Bish said. "Birds were company during this period of isolation... Birds are everywhere. You don't have to leave your house. They will come."

    Compared to other counts — including Audubon's 123-year-old Christmas Bird Count and the Cornell Lab's Project FeederWatch — the GBBC is the best one for beginners.

    Participants watch and record birds in easy ways. They can look out the window for 15 minutes or take a longer trip to a nature area. Organizers suggest using the Merlin bird ID app to identify birds by size, shape, song or other qualities. Many participants also carry field guidebooks and binoculars along with their smart phones. They then enter the findings into the eBird app.

    "Anyone can say, ‘I can contribute to science — it's easy. I can identify one bird over a four-day period and I've done my part,'" Rodomsky-Bish said.

    Counting in February, she said, provides a record right before many birds start their yearly spring migrations.

    Dalibor, the schoolteacher, has provided her students with information about local birds and practiced with the Merlin ID app. The students will record bird sightings and parent volunteers will enter those numbers on phones.

    "It'll be authentic data that we collected ourselves that real scientists are going to use. There's purpose and action behind it, which is special for them, being connected to the wider world," Dalibor said.

    Ganeshwar SV is director of the Salem Ornithological Foundation in India. He helps get schools in India involved in conservation programs, including the GBBC. He said the goal "is not to count but to just enjoy birds."

    "In rural areas, it's not unusual for children to wander around and use (slingshots) ... and kill birds," he said. Now, "the hands that used (slingshots) to hit birds are the same hands that are building nest boxes and taking notes about birds and their behavior."

    The GBBC also urges participants to share pictures of birds, themselves, and other birdwatchers. The count will end on February 20.

    I'm Dan Novak.

    Julia Rubin reported this story for the Associated Press. Hai Do adapted it for VOA Learning English.


    Words in This Story

    participation –n. the act of being involved in doing something

    conservation –n. the activity of preserving natural areas and resources for future generations.

    isolation –n. being alone or separated from other people

    app (application) –n. a computer program that does one job or task

    contribute –v. to give something of value

    slingshot –n. a simple device shaped like a "Y" and with a stretching band that can be used to shoot small stones