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Weekend's nationwide bird census really counts

A red-bellied woodpecker photographed in Texas during 2010's Great Backyard Bird Count.
A red-bellied woodpecker photographed in Texas during 2010's Great Backyard Bird Count.Simon Tan / GBBC
/ Source: OurAmazingPlanet

Don't be alarmed if you see your neighbors prowling around the yard with binoculars this weekend, looking for impressive breasts. Rest assured that nothing sinister is afoot.

They're probably looking for red-breasted robins. Or white-breasted nuthatches. Or red-shouldered hawks. Just about anything with feathers and wings.

This weekend birds, no matter their coloring or anatomical curiosities, will be counted all over the United States and Canada during the 14th annual Great Backyard Bird Count, a four-day event that kicks off Friday.

The GBBC is a joint project of the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Open to people of all ages and attention spans — you can count birds for as briefly as 15 minutes — the massive event is designed to provide a snapshot of the bird species present in North America.

Citizen science
The event has grown in popularity each year, and the 2010 GBBC was a record breaker — 97,200 checklists poured in from all 50 states, and participants recorded 602 species in 11.2 million individual bird observations.

Part of the appeal, said Bob Barnes, a passionate birder who has led observing trips across the United States for roughly 35 years, is the fact that you don't have to be a trained scientist to join in the fun.

"It's pretty inclusive for anybody," said Barnes, who is based near the Kern River Valley in California. Barnes said he plans to put in time every day of the GBBC, although he's not sure exactly where he'll be counting birds.

"We have some rain in the forecast here, in which case I'll literally be doing my backyard," Barnes said, chuckling, "because then I can do it inside my house. We have floor-to-ceiling windows in the back."

Helpful data
Whether semi-professional, self-taught, or total bird beginners, all participants in the GBBC make valuable contributions by sending in data, said Kevin J. McGowan, a scientist who has been studying crows for almost 25 years.

"Anything that is an organized way to count birds is helpful to us," McGowan, an ornithologist at the Cornell lab, told OurAmazingPlanet. "In fact, all of our really good methods of counting bird populations are done by volunteers, so they're mostly amateurs."

McGowan, who is not professionally associated with the GBBC, said this weekend's event will catch birds at the very end of their southerly migrations.

The good thing about events like the GBBC and Audubon's better-known and more regimented Christmas Bird Count is that they get so many people involved, he said.

"They just get a whole lot more boots on the ground anywhere than there would be otherwise," McGowan said. Plus, he added, "It's fun."

Barnes could not agree more. Armed with binoculars and paper and pencil, Barnes said he wouldn't think of missing the event but he'd probably be out looking at birds, anyway.

"Maybe it's because birds can do things that we can't — they can fly without an engine," Barnes said. "You look up and think, 'Wouldn't it be fun to go up there and fly above everything?'"

You can sign up for the Great Backyard Bird Count here.

Reach Andrea Mustain at Follow her on Twitter @AndreaMustain.