| Popular resident and migratory bird populations are mentioned quite often in this column mostly because birds are an everyday feature of our outdoor world. It’s a boring day when I can’t see, hear or observe birds moving through their habitat and mine. Fortunately, the least of these observations occur just before and during a storm, which is fine because I’m hunkered down along with them!
I’m not alone in my fondness for back yard birding. According to my seed supplier local birders run though several tons of sunflower seeds, cracked corn, wildlife grain and other foods each month. In fact, there are times when I have to go back to the store to pick up items they were out of on the last trip.
It’s been a while since I mentioned the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, launched in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society. The Great Backyard Bird Count was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time. Since then, more than 100,000 people of all ages and walks of life have joined the four-day count each February to create an annual snapshot of the distribution and abundance of birds. Anyone who loves to watch or feed birds is invited to participate. Simply tally the numbers and kinds of birds you see for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count (Feb. 13-16, 2015). You can count from any location, anywhere in the world. Sit down, sip your cocoa, count the birds you see and send in your tally. Nothing to it!
If you're new to the count, register online and then enter your checklist. If you have already participated in another Cornell Lab citizen-science project, you can use your existing login information.
During the count, you can explore what others are seeing in your area or around the world. Share your bird photos by entering the photo contest, or enjoy images pouring in from across the globe.
Help make the most successful count ever by participating this year and then keep counting throughout the year with eBird, which uses the same system as the Great Backyard Bird Count to collect, store, and display data any time, all the time.
In 2014, Great Backyard Bird Count participants in 135 countries counted nearly 4,300 species of birds on more than 144,000 checklists.
Why count birds? Scientists and bird enthusiasts can learn a lot by knowing where the birds spend their time at a given time of year. Bird populations are dynamic; they are constantly in flux. No single scientist or team of scientists could hope to document and understand the complex distribution and movements of so many species in such a short time. Scientists use information from the Great Backyard Bird Count, along with observations from other citizen-science projects such as the Christmas Bird Count, Project FeederWatch, and eBird to get the "big picture" about what is happening to bird populations. The longer these data are collected the more meaningful they become in helping scientists investigate far-reaching questions like these: How will the weather and climate change influence bird populations? Some birds, such as winter finches, appear in large numbers during some years but not others. Where are these species from year to year, and what can we learn from these patterns? How will the timing of birds' migrations compare with past years? How are bird diseases, such as West Nile virus, affecting birds in different regions? What kinds of differences in bird diversity are apparent in cities versus suburban, rural, and natural areas?
The Great Backyard Bird Count is led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society with Bird Studies Canada and many international partners. The Great Backyard Bird Count is powered by eBird. The count is made possible in part by founding sponsor Wild Birds Unlimited. For more information and to see Top 10 lists and other 2014 results log onto http://gbbc.birdcount.org/about.
Over the years there has been a gradual but noticeable shift in the numbers and species of birds that winter and summer in Maine and the rest of the Northeast. “Development” is often blamed for changes in wildlife populations but the number of acres lost to construction projects each year is miniscule compared to the acres of critical bird habitat that is lost when brushy cover is allowed to grow into stands of mature forest. Species diversity is greatest in low, brushy habitat. As brush grows into mature forest the number of birds and animals that utilize that cover type is severely reduced. This is why a walk through a vast, mature forest produces so few wildlife sightings. Few birds or animals eat trees, and so they find somewhere else to set up shop.
In the last 100 years more than 70 percent of the Northeast has gone from farmland to forest, and as the underbrush goes so go our edge-cover birds and animals. These days most of the early-successional habitat that is so important to these species is found in and around subdivisions, urban areas and the region’s remaining farmlands. Thus, we can sit on our porches and see more, various bird species at our feeders than we’ll see on a very long walk through the open, empty woods.
Over the last 50 years I’ve noticed a distinct reduction in bird species just in the relatively small world I live in. Noticeably fewer these days are grouse, Canada jays, evening grosbeaks, woodcock and wrens, all denizens of low brush and sapling habitat that foresters refer to as “3-inches diameter or less at breast height.” In 1880 Maine was 30 percent forested, but now mature forest covers more than 90 percent of the state. Maturing forest gradually shades out the dense, young hardwood and softwood growth most wildlife species prefer and so they have no choice but to move on to habitat that is more to their liking.
It will be interesting to see what this year’s Back Yard Bird Count will tell us. Only the birds know what the future holds!