citizen science

My First Great Backyard Bird Count, Part 2: The Count

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Talkin’ Birds.

I registered for the GBBC (Great Backyard Bird Count) in early January. (See previous blog entry to find out how.) My materials arrived in early February, about two weeks ahead of the count. They included a handbook, an identification poster, a tally sheet, a calendar, and instructions. (See photo below.) They also included my registration number.


I immediately created an account on the Project Feederwatch website with my registration number. That number will remain with me for all future GBBGs. Kind of like a driver’s license, but without the terrible photo.

As the GBBC approached, my family sprang into action. My teenage daughter left the country, my teenage son made plans with friends, and my husband suddenly came up with a work commitment. I’d be on my own. But no matter: I’d have my handy chart with me, plus our household field guides and Merlin Bird ID.

It took me a little while to get used to the protocol for counting. To prevent repeatedly counting the same individual bird, you’re supposed to report the greatest number of birds of the same species that you see at your feeder at the same time. Doing this makes it impossible for you to report the same individual more than once if it keeps flying away and coming back.

So here’s what my tally sheet looked like. The first photo shows my count early on the first day. The second photo shows my count at the end.

Tally sheet early Saturday

Tally sheet early Saturday

You’ll note that, in addition to the species counts, there are places at left to indicate the amount of time I spent and the weather, and at bottom to record any interesting interactions I saw.

Tally sheet late Sunday

Tally sheet late Sunday

On Saturday, I watched the feeders for 20 minutes in the morning and 30 in the afternoon. I sat at the dining room table with a cup of tea and the tally sheet, the chart, the field guides, and Merlin Bird ID. I wished my family were home so I could ignore them for the sake of science.

When I was finished, I logged in to the Project Feederwatch website and logged my data. And I was DONE. Having submitted my data electronically, I did not need to mail in my tally sheet.

So that was it! I had contributed to science by sipping a cup of tea at my dining room table while watching bird feeders. You think I could apply for a grant to do this full time?

My First Great Backyard Bird Count, Part 1: Registration

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Talkin’ Birds.

I know what you’re thinking. “You’re Senior Producer of Talkin’ Birds and you’re only NOW doing a Great Backyard Bird Count?”

Um…yeah. But in my defense, I’ve been a little busy, okay?! You have no idea what it’s like to work with—um, never mind. (Sorry, Ray!)

But seriously: I had three very good reasons for not doing the GBBG until now—and maybe you have the same ones. First, I didn’t know what it was. Second, I didn’t know when or how to register for it. And third, I thought I wasn’t skilled enough to participate. The good news is that I did it anyway, and I had so much fun that I’m going to give you the resources to do it with me next year.

So—here were my first three questions about the Great Backyard Bird Count, plus the answers.

1. What is it, again?

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is a citizen science project under the auspices of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Each February since 1988, people all over the world have counted bird species coming to their feeders and reported their findings. These days, more than 160,000 people participate in the project, most of whom enter their data online. Together, we create an annual snapshot of species distribution.

Here’s Ray discussing the GBBC with NPR’s Scott Simon on Weekend Edition Saturday, February 16, 2019.

You can read more about the GBBC here, on the official website.

2. When and how do you register?

You can register any time, even during the GBBC. However, I recommend that you register in early January because it takes a few weeks for the materials to arrive in the mail. Register here, at the GBBC website. Bonus: Once you register, you keep your registration number from year to year. You still have to sign up for each year’s count, but your number stays the same. Me, I like to be efficient with my time, so I’d rather forget a number once than have to forget a new number every year.

3. How skilled do you have to be?

Excuse me while I laugh my head off.

(whew) All set. Honestly, if I can do it, so can you. I’m okay identifying my neighborhood birds, but I need help with many others. The packet from Cornell comes with a poster of common feeder birds; one side with eastern species, one with western. I used the poster plus Cornell’s smartphone app, Merlin Bird ID. So—you know that nightmare we all have about taking a final exam when you haven’t studied? (Or doing a radio interview when you don’t know what you’re talking about? Right, Ray?? ) It’s not like that at all.

I’ll write again soon about how to do the actual count and upload the data. For now, why not go to the GBBC website and register for next year?

Citizen Science with House Sparrow Eggs

House Sparrows (passer domesticus). Some of us enjoy their resilience, cheerful presence, and ubiquitous "Cheep!" Some of us can't stand seeing them everywhere, including in the nesting boxes we've set out for bluebirds. Love them or hate them, the fact is that they are an invasive species, brought here from England in the mid-19th century and thriving ever since in populated areas—often at the expense of other songbirds. 

A new citizen science project is now making use of House Sparrow eggs in ways that should satisfy both friend and foe.  The Sparrow Swap, out of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, asks volunteers for House Sparrow eggs to test for pollutants. The aim is to discover whether these birds, often regarded as pests, can help us monitor our environment. Meanwhile, taking eggs from nests provides another research opportunity, namely population control. Participants are given fake eggs to swap for real ones in hopes that the nesting sparrows will try to hatch them rather than build a new nest when they discover their original clutch has vanished. If this protocol works, it will provide the basis for an environmentally safe way to reduce the number of House Sparrows. 

Want to know more or participate? Look for "The Sparrow Swap" on Facebook or check out this website. 


Around the Web

This week, we see how birds are adapting to climate change—or not; why vehicles and birds collide so often (and so tragically); and how you can get involved in a little bit of citizen science, right from your laptop!