“Citizen Science” for the Birds, Master Gardeners, and More…

Common Redpoll male (Photo: Helena Garcia)

Common Redpoll male by Helena Garcia, Quebec. (Photo courtesy: Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Like many Master Gardeners, one of the things I love most about gardening is the birds. Not only do they help me by controlling insects in my garden but the garden certainly wouldn’t be the same without the birdsong and the comforting activity of finches, sparrows, mockingbirds, chickadees and Carolina wrens, to name only a few.

Every year, there’s an opportunity for me to put my backyard bird watching to good use by taking part in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) – a joint project of the Audubon Society ,Cornell Lab of Ornithology , and Bird Studies Canada . The information gathered over these four days is used to track how bird populations are shifting from year to year as their environments change. This is an activity I can enjoy doing with my grandkids. It’s a great way to get them involved in the outdoors and in a “science” project – Citizen Science. Citizen Science is an opportunity for people, young and old, to help scientists by observing something, counting or collecting data, and logging their results in an online database.

Teasing out Major Trends with Citizen Science

HM_Briar_Bush_Nature_Centers_GBBC_Jennifer_Sherwood_PA_n506_2011[1] (2)

Briar Bush Nature Centers by Jennifer Sherwood, PA (Photo courtesy: Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Using citizen science enables scientists to obtain useful information, while educating “citizen scientists” about wildlife, their habitats, and the scientific process. This information can provide the basis for managing bird populations, improving our knowledge of the ecology, and promoting habitat preservation. There are several “bird watch” citizen science activities, but there are also many opportunities to engage in citizen science with other species like the Great Sunflower Project or the Spider Webwatch , or the Frog Watch, to name only a few! There are “watches” on bats, worms, flowers, butterflies and more. Or you can go to the Citizen Science Programs page on the National Wildlife Federations website for more ideas. Want to teach kids about sustainability? You can join the World Water Monitoring Day or a watch on weather.


How do citizen scientists help scientists at the Great Backyard Count?

I spoke with Pat Leonard at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology about this year’s bird count and asked her to share from her perspective what was valuable about Citizen Science to the study of birds.

Pat said that it enabled them to get a large amount of raw data from all over North America and Canada which enabled them to tease out major trends. The raw data (checklists) are screened by reviewers in every state and province. The GBBC provides a snapshot in time of where the birds are and in what numbers.

This is the 15th year for the GBBC and, although this has been a mild winter in many places or bird activity might be lower because there’s other forage for them, Pat cautioned against thinking it was less important to count. Instead, she encouraged everyone to record what bird activity has been like during a mild winter – this data is valuable, too.

Joining the Great Backyard Bird Count Feb. 17, 2011


Northern Sawhet Owl by Nick Saunders, Saskatchewan (Photo courtesy: Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

This year the Great Backyard Bird Count is Feb. 17 – 20. You can find directions, a video , and wonderful pictures to help you identify the birds on their web site. And it’s so easy! All you do is count the birds you see in your backyard and write down how many (by type). Then, after the 4 days are over, you go online and enter what you counted – easy! It’s fun to watch the results pour in from all over the country, too! You can see this by going to “Explore Results” to look at the data and maps. You can look at just your state or the whole nation and see what the most-frequently spotted birds are (the largest population with greatest distribution over a wide range), how many were counted, and which state turned in the most counts. There’s also a photo contest, so keep your cameras ready! Last year 92,218 checklists were turned in and 594 species were observed for a total of 11,471,949 birds. Amazing what motivated volunteers can accomplish! (But we knew that!)

What about you?

Do you encourage birds to visit you backyard by making food and water available to them?

Have you ever had a chickadee eat out of your hand?

Please share your stories with us here!

– by Connie Schultz, Extension Master Gardener (’95), Johnson County, North Carolina


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