Science is based on observation, so it makes sense that sometimes the scientific community needs a few extra pairs of eyes and ears. The Great Backyard Bird Count is one of the largest “citizen science” projects in the world.
Citizen Science projects allow researchers to organize interested people around the world to help with some sort of research project. They are normally organized online. One example is a project that asks volunteers to look at pictures of distant galaxies and click a button if they recognize patterns of star distribution, such as a spiral pattern. Telescopes photograph hundreds of thousands of galaxies and it turns out that humans can recognize their patterns much faster than computers!
The Great Backyard Bird Count is different in that instead of asking volunteers to look at professionally-collected data, it asks volunteers around the world to make their own observations and report them back to the project. It takes place each February and asks volunteers to watch their bird feeders for at least 15 minutes sometime during a particular four-day period.
Scientists use the reports to calculate worldwide distributions of bird populations. In 2013, Great Backyard Bird Count participants in more than 100 countries counted 17,748,756 birds on 144,109 checklists, documenting 4,296 species. You can be sure that the researchers are glad they weren’t expected to count that many birds without help!
Another great thing about the Great Backyard Bird Count is that it is easy for kids to participate, either at home or as a school project. The project dates for 2015 are already set, but you don’t have to wait until then to roll up your sleeves and pitch in. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society has launched a great web site where you can set up an account and start honing your bird-watcher skills right now.
Check it out at eBird.org: http://ebird.org/content/ebird/
On eBird, your family or school can keep lists of all the birds seen throughout the year, as well as learn what birds other folks are seeing. There are great resources to help you identify birds and learn more about them. Your observations will be added to the observations of thousands of other birdwatchers and will make up part of the ever-expanding data set being used by researchers to understand how birds move around.
Use eBird to develop your bird-watching muscles, and you’ll be more than ready to go next February when the next Great Backyard Bird Count takes place.