Birding

Everything You Need to Know to Run Your Own Great Backyard Bird Count

This weekend, get outside and participate in the global bird-counting event that helps scientific research. Here's how to get started.

For some folks, the best part of President’s Day is having an extra 24 hours to veg out. But for others, it's that joyous time of year when they get to tally up birds for the 20th annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), which runs this weekend from February 17 to 20.

During the GBBC, people from around the world count wild birds on the same weekend, and then submit their data online for scientists to use in their research. The kid-friendly event is run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, plus other sponsors and international partners.

Whether you’re a sage expert or a first-time birder, you can help create a snapshot of avian populations and provide critical information for future conservation efforts just by reporting what you see and hear. Every observation you submit gives scientists more insight into research areas such as how birds are adapting to suburban sprawl, West Nile Virus, and climate change. It’s free, it’s fun, and it makes a difference. 

So how do you take part? Read on to learn the ins and outs of running your own count.

Make a Plan

Before you hit the great outdoors (or your backyard), you will need to sort out logistics so that when the weekend comes, you're properly prepared. First, make sure you have a way to submit your data after the count is over. If you already have an account at the GBBC website, an eBird account, or have registered for another Cornell Lab citizen science project (such as FeederWatch or NestWatch), you can use your existing information to log into the database. If you haven’t participated in the last two years, creating a new account is easy. Once you’re set, download the mobile app from the eBird website. Participants who don’t have smartphones can use their computers to plug in data.

Next, decide where you're going to count and for how long you want to do it. You can devote as little as 15 minutes on a single day, or make a full weekend of it. And though you’re welcome to stick to your window or yard, you can count anywhere: your neighborhood, a local park, a rooftop, a national wildlife refuge or sanctuary, or a birding hotspot farther afield. You can also move between locations during the survey, so feel free to visit several different spots.

Rather than tackling it alone, recruit a group to go out with you. Solo counts are still fun and challenging, but partners can provide levity and extra eyes to help identify elusive species or large flocks. The GBBC is also a great opportunity to introduce the joys of birding to someone new by taking the Pledge to Fledge—a program that encourages experienced birders to bring beginners into the fold.

You might also want to study up ahead of time to get a sense of the birds you're likely to see. Most of the species you will encounter will be local and familiar. (Snow Geese and European Starlings always rank among “most numerous” during the count.) The GBBC website offers online guides and ID tips you can use to hone your skills. You can also download the free Merlin ID app, which identifies birds from uploaded photos, or the new iPhone app Song Sleuth, which puts a name to a birdsong. And don't forget about our free Audubon Bird Guide app as well. 

Snow Geese. Photo: Michael Gale/Audubon Photography Awards

Get Out There 

Collecting and reporting data for the GBBC is straightforward: At each location, identify any species you see or hear, and tally up the number of individuals. (You can also note any interesting behaviors.) Create a checklist for each location and time; if you revisit a spot, start a new checklist. Remember to keep track of start and end times for each checklist, as well as distance traveled. The mobile app automatically tracks the time after you open a new checklist. Your smartphone should also have a health app that logs steps and miles.

Be as accurate as possible, but don’t panic if your numbers are inexact. Counting a large flock of fussy juncos is a challenge. Estimate when you have to: If you tally only 20 birds, but it seems like there are twice that many, 40 is a safe estimate. (eBird has a helpful article on estimating flock sizes.) Snapping a photo of the scene can help you total up flocks later, so keep a camera on hand if possible. (Did we mention that there’s a photo contest?)

During the GBBC, rarity doesn't matter; the hundreds of House Sparrows count just as much as the more unusual species. But that doesn't mean that seeing a rare bird isn't part of the allure. Perhaps you will find a bird that's never been seen in your area, or record a historically high number of a particular species. Last year, counters in Philadelphia found the GBBC’s first-ever Barnacle Geese, which usually winter in Europe. And southwestern birders posted three tropical marvels: the White-throated Thrush, Clay-colored Thrush, and Rufous-backed Robin. Rare birds are exciting, but it's important to be cautious and rule out less exciting possibilities first. Carefully document any unusual sightings; it’s good practice, and can help with verification later on.

Above all, remember to take your time. Approaching birds too quickly is a surefire way to scare some off. A little patience will keep them visible to you and minimize the stress for them, providing a better experience for all.

Share the Wealth

Once you’ve seen some beautiful birds and collected valuable data, leave the rest to the scientists by submitting your observations. For those using the mobile app, it’s a simple matter of reviewing your checklists for accuracy, adding photos, and then hitting "submit." If you plan to record your data by hand, the process is almost as easy: All you have to do is log in to the GBBC website, head to the "submit your observations" page, and then plug in your results and photos. (The site guides you through each step, and allows you to share entries with your counting partners.) Another option is to submit your tallies directly into eBird.

Now comes the hard part: waiting for results. With data streaming in from all over the world (last year, participants from more than 130 countries submitted 162,052 checklists), it takes about two weeks to crunch the numbers. Once the wait is over, check out the GBBC or Audubon websites for the final results. There should be a few surprising stories and photo galleries to enjoy as well—and maybe even one from your own count.

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