Last month, while much of the country was caught in the throes of a polar vortex, Americans braved frigid conditions to spend Valentine's weekend outside, counting birds. Thanks to the tenacity of bird enthusiasts around the world, it was a record-breaking year for the Great Backyard Bird Count, an annual avian survey run by the National Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Over 140,000 individuals tallied 17.7 million birds from 4,296 species—that's more than one-third of all the known avian species in the world.
Unfortunately, there was no sign of a finch irruption this year—white-winged crossbills were all the rage back in 2013. But droves of snowy owls were seen along the Great Lakes and Atlantic Coast, and there were sightings of white-winged scoters and long-tailed ducks much farther inland. A few Mexican natives, like the Sinaloa wren, were found hanging out in the deserts of Arizona. And for the very first time in the history of the count, a yellow-rumped warbler was recorded in central England.
Flocks of Millions
The five birds that showed up across most checklists were northern cardinals, dark-eyed juncos, mourning doves, blue jays, and downy woodpeckers. When it came to strength in numbers, red-winged blackbirds, snow geese, Canada geese, European starlings, and mallard ducks were the clear winners. Red-winged blackbirds and the two geese species tipped the scales, with more than a million individuals each.
An International Affair
Aside from the wealth of data that came out of this year's survey, another compelling feature was the diversity of the participants. This was only the second year that the Great Backyard Bird Count was open to parties outside of the U.S. Overall, 135 different countries contributed to make it a cross-continental, scientific endeavor. Canada, India, Australia, Mexico, and Chile exhibited the highest rates of participation.
Help From the Himalayas
India helped boost the total numbers of the count by contributing 819 species and 3,151 checklists. Some of the endemic birds that were noted included: purple-rumped sunbird, rufous babbler, vernal-hanging parrot, and Himalayan snowcock. The most common species seen in India was the rosy starling, the sister species to the Western-based European starling.
The Science Behind the Count
The purpose of the Great Backyard Bird Count is not only to raise awareness on birds and the environment. Scientists also use the data to help answer a host of questions about avian behavior and health. How are shifting climate patterns affecting bird migrations? Are birds able to cope with the influx of diseases, such as the West Nile Virus? Can native species survive, and even thrive in urban areas? Now that the Great Backyard Bird Count has become an international effort, the answers to these questions may surface sooner rather than later.
For more information on this year's results or next year's count, visit http://gbbc.birdcount.org/.