By Alison Mitchell
In the two years since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, many people have taken solace in nature and developed a deeper appreciation for wildlife.
One bright side to spending more time isolating at home has been the chance to observe more birds in our own backyards and neighborhoods.
If you are among those who have developed a fascination with our feathered friends, why not join like-minded people around the world in collecting data on their locations and numbers?
This year is the 25th anniversary of the Great Backyard Bird Count, to be held Feb. 18-21.
Bird watchers of all skill levels are invited to join the count so “their” birds become part of a massive database used by scientists to track changes in bird populations over time.
The Great Backyard Bird Count is jointly sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society and Birds Canada.
“Birds tell us how our environment and climate are changing,” explains Chad Wilsey, chief scientist at the National Audubon Society. “By joining the Great Backyard Bird Count, participants can contribute valuable data that helps scientists better understand our surroundings. Together we can use this information to better protect birds and the places they need.”
It’s easy to join the bird count. You don’t need expertise in bird identification; there is a free smartphone app called Merlin that is amazingly accurate at helping to identify bird species.
When you spot a bird you don’t recognize, Merlin will ask a series of questions about the bird’s size, coloring, location and behavior, then suggest a list (with photos) of possible matches.
And you don’t even need to have a backyard. Participants living in apartments can simply pick a place – perhaps a neighborhood park – where they can observe birds for at least 15 minutes.
Launched in 1998, the Great Backyard Bird Count was the first online citizen science project to collect data on wild birds and display results in near real time.
In 2013, bird counters around the globe began entering bird count data into eBird, the largest online biodiversity related citizen science project.
With the addition of the Merlin app in 2021, even more people got hooked on watching and counting birds.
Thanks to advances in technology and more people sticking close to home, a record number of participants joined the Great Backyard Bird Count in 2021.
The official tally: More than 300,000 people from 190 countries submitted 379,726 eBird checklists and 479,842 Merlin Bird identifications, reporting an impressive total of 6,436 different bird species.
The United States led in bird count participation, followed by Canada, India, Spain and the United Kingdom.
Photo submissions also skyrocketed in 2021. Beautiful bird images from around the world were snapped over the count weekend, totaling more than 150,000 submissions in four days.
This year, organizers are hoping even more bird lovers will get outside and join the fun.
“The Great Backyard Bird Count is about the birds, but it’s also about the people,” said David Bonter, the Cornell Lab’s co-director at the Center for Engagement in Science and Nature.
“It’s clear from scientific studies that getting outdoors or connecting with nature, even watching or listening to birds from home, does people a lot of good,” Bonter said.
Here in New Jersey, there is the potential to count a large number of winter species over the four-day period.
Common backyard feeder birds include chickadees, cardinals, finches, sparrows, woodpeckers and nuthatches.
Near rivers and marshes, counters may see ducks, great blue herons and bald eagles.
Bird watchers living near the ocean and bays could see a variety of gulls, terns, sandpipers and loons.
Will a flock of wintering siskins or crossbills show up to your feeder? Or will you uncover a barnacle or pink-footed goose among the flocks of ubiquitous Canada geese? Part of the fun for many is seeking the less common species.
Want to learn more about the bird count? The Great Backyard Bird Count website is full of tools and information to help new and returning birders; visit www.birdcount.org/
On Feb. 16 from 2-3 p.m. there will be a free webinar about how to participate in the count. To register, go to https://dl.allaboutbirds.org/gbbc22-fb-livestream
For more step-by-step instructions, go to:
• Merlin Bird ID app: www.birdcount.org/merlin-bird-id-app/
• eBird Mobile app: www.birdcount.org/ebird-mobile-app/
• eBird on a computer: www.birdcount.org/ebird-on-computer
Alison Mitchell is a co-executive director of New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at email@example.com