It’s that time of year!
The annual Great Backyard Bird Count is set to take place this week, beginning on Friday, February 15 and running through Monday, February 18. And building on tradition, Wild Birds Unlimited will continue to play a major role in the bird-watching action.
The Great Backyard Bird Count started back in 1998 as a joint effort between the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society to collect data on wild birds and grew every year after that.
“It began in 1998 as something of an experiment,” said Pat Leonard, GBBC coordinators for the Cornell Lab. “There was this fancy new thing called the Internet and we wanted to see if we could get people to report birds online, so they put together the Great Backyard Bird Count to run in the United States and Canada.”
In 2018, more than 100 countries participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count, which takes place in February every year for a very strategic reason, at least in the Western Hemisphere..
“In February, if the birds were migratory, they were at the farthest point they were going to be, so we all wanted to get a pretty good sense of what was going on,” Leonard said. “It’s really for the overall patterns that we might see compared to other years.”
Wild Birds Unlimited’s participation in and sponsorship of the Great Backyard Bird Count has played a critical role in the event’s success, Leonard said. This participation includes franchisees helping to spread the word. Participation is not mandatory for franchisees, but when they do participate it is very helpful and much appreciated.
“They’ve been with us since day one,” Leonard said of Wild Birds Unlimited. “We call them a founding sponsor. Their sponsorship and funding makes it possible for this program to exist. We started a photo contest years ago, and we needed prizes for the top winners in six different categories and they provided great products for that. Generally, through their franchises, there are people promoting the event. You can’t put a money value on that. Their help is incalculable and invaluable. They’ve been with us all along and we couldn’t ask for a better partner.”
In the beginning, paper forms were used to submit lists of birds people had seen during the Great Backyard Bird Count. In 2002, the worldwide eBird online reporting program was established. The GBBC was merged with eBird in 2013, making the count a global project.
Leonard said that eBird has become a “huge data monster” for both scientists and bird enthusiasts who want to look at the distribution and numbers of bird species and how they might be changing over time.
“It’s become really valuable for scientific studies,” Leonard said of the data submitted through eBird.
To be clear, all of the data submitted passes through online filters which catch unusual reports which may then be reviewed by local bird experts to ensure data quality, Leonard said.
“If a report is flagged,” Leonard said. “It will go to a human for review, and they verify how accurate the information might be. They also have the final call on whether it goes into the database.”
Leonard noted that the Great Backyard Bird Count is a great way for nature enthusiasts to get involved in science.
“For us at the Cornell Lab, we’re trying to get people interested in the natural world and in science,” Leonard said. “The Great Backyard Bird Count is an easy way to get involved. It only takes place once a year and runs for four days. You don’t even have to participate all four days. Some people spend 15 minutes looking out of their windows while others spend hours birdwatching. It introduces participants to citizen science in a non-threatening way. Plus, it’s a great way to gather data. No single person could do because birds are everywhere. Participants lend us their eyes and ears to monitor birdlife.”
Participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count, as well as other bird-counting initiatives such as the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, can also serve a higher mission.
“When you care about something you want to preserve it,” Leonard said. “Birds are among the creatures that need a lot of help right now. Some are doing okay but a lot of them are declining tremendously, whether that’s because of habitat loss, climate change, or disease. You would never just use one data source when analyzing a situation. You would use others as well to be sure the trend you’re seeing is corroborated across all of these counts. It’s a piece of the bigger puzzle.”
ABOUT WILD BIRDS UNLIMITED
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