Get ready for the Great Backyard Bird Count

I practiced for the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) this morning. That means for 30 minutes I became an official "birdwatcher," although birdwatching isn't really my thing.

However everybody who has a bird feeder in the backyard, or even those who don't, are likely birdwatchers. We can't help but be interested in our fine feathered friends who come calling.

Scientists are asking that you take a mere 15 minutes (or more) between Feb. 17 - 20 to simply count and record what you see. The first GBBC was held in 1998, making this year's count the 20th Anniversary. Each year brings unwavering enthusiasm from the growing number of participants in this global event. And it doesn't have to be your backyard. Participants are encouraged to also count in parks, nature centers, on hiking trails, school grounds, balconies, and beaches—anywhere you find birds.

Bird watchers count the birds they see for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count, then enter their checklists at All the data contribute to a snapshot of bird distribution and help scientists see changes over the past 20 years.

In my 30-minute practice session (9:40 am to 10:10 am) Thursday, watching at my feeders and backyard out the kitchen window, I counted 13 species including: Purple Finch, House Finch, Blackcapped Chickadee, Carolina Wren, Mourning Dove, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Robin, Mockingbird, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Bluebird, Song Sparrow, Tufted Titmouse, and Downy Woodpecker.

In can be tough to identify the many types of sparrows, or tell a house finch from a purple finch. In a couple of cases I was greatly aided in my identification by a really cool, free App called Merlin Bird ID App from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

“The very first GBBC was an experiment,” says the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Marshall Iliff, a leader of the eBird program. “We wanted to see if people would use the Internet to send us their bird sightings. Clearly the experiment was a success!”

eBird collects bird observations globally every day of the year and is the online platform used by the GBBC. That first year, bird watchers submitted about 13,500 checklists from the United States and Canada. Fast-forward to the most recent event in 2016. Over the four days of the count, an estimated 163,763 bird watchers from more than 100 countries submitted 162,052 bird checklists reporting 5,689 species–more than half the known bird species in the world.

“The Great Backyard Bird Count is a great way to introduce people to participation in citizen science,” says Audubon vice president and chief scientist Gary Langham. “No other program allows volunteers to take an instantaneous snapshot of global bird populations that can contribute to our understanding of how a changing climate is affecting birds.”

In addition to counting birds, the GBBC photo contest has also been a hit with participants since it was introduced in 2006. Since then, tens of thousands of stunning images have been submitted. For the 20th anniversary of the GBBC, the public is invited to vote for their favorite top photo from each of the past 11 years in a special album they will find on the GBBC website home page. Voting takes place during the four days of the GBBC.

Learn more about how to take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count at where downloadable instructions and an explanatory PowerPoint are available. The GBBC is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society with partner Bird Studies Canada and is made possible in part by sponsor Wild Birds Unlimited.

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