February ushers in the great backyard bird count

February 07, 2009|By JEFF RUGG / Creators Syndicate

By the time you read this, Groundhog Day will be over. The way I see it, that means winter is almost over. Even if the groundhog says there are still six more weeks of winter - who believes groundhogs can count weeks?

Once February's four short weeks are over, so is winter, even if you live in North Dakota. Spring may be pretty cold and snowy in North Dakota, and they may not be able to plant tomatoes until the Fourth of July, but winter is practically over on the last day of February.

Unfortunately, on Groundhog Day, the birds in your backyard may not be out of the woods yet. They still have to survive the rest of winter. Bird feeders filled with seeds will help some birds make it through the coldest nights. Small sparrow-sized birds weigh only about the same as 10 pennies and even though they are wearing a down coat they can lose as much as two cents worth of weight in a single night. Losing 20 percent of your weight overnight by shivering is not a fun diet plan.


To find out an approximate number of the birds that have survived over the winter, and before many migrant birds start arriving from the tropics, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology operates the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). This year it will take place Feb. 13-16, and you can participate from the comfort of your living room. It is an annual four-day period when bird-watchers create a snapshot of where the birds are across the continent. Anyone can be a bird-watcher for those four days. A "backyard" can be anywhere you happen to be: a schoolyard, a local park, the balcony of a high-rise apartment or a wildlife refuge.

It does help if you have mastered the basics of bird identification. I have seen a few birds on some of the lists that were very unusual for the area, so I think they may have been misidentified.

Over- and underreporting are parts of the problem with using citizen scientists for research. Valuable information is gathered, but it may not be completely accurate. Doing the count is easy; all you do is count the birds you see at any location. The highest number of each species seen on any of the days is recorded. Then you go to to record your list online. There is a photo contest for those interested.

The GBBC helps everyone prepare for their trip to the backyard, whether they choose to watch birds only around their home or make the effort to see which birds are using public lands. The Web site is full of tips, including information on bird feeding; how to use binoculars; how to make your yard bird-friendly; and how to identify birds, especially those tricky, similar-looking species. There are even tips on how to be a bird-friendly family.

The results of each survey are displayed on a variety of maps. You can easily see the distribution pattern of any bird species. You can also see the same map change over time as the birds' mapped distribution change over the years. You can compare your sightings to everyone else in your state.

Every year more people do the count and more people do more than one count. I do a backyard count and also count a two-mile section of river near my home. Last year, more than 85,000 reports were sent in, covering over 9 million birds of 635 species.

Scientists and bird enthusiasts can learn a lot by knowing where the birds are. Bird populations are dynamic; they are constantly in flux. No single scientist or team of scientists could hope to document the complex distribution and movements of so many species in such a short time.

Make sure the birds from your community are well represented in the count. It doesn't matter whether you report the five species coming to your backyard feeder or the 75 species you see during a day's outing to a wildlife refuge.

Documenting bird populations and their shift over time is one of the goals of the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). It is obvious that water birds would move away from areas that have frozen, but do land birds also move away? How about snow cover - does it affect bird distribution? Observers of birds during the count also note the weather conditions and snow depth. Not only are some birds not found in heavy snow areas, but the more snow that is reported, the fewer bird-watchers there are.

Many people associate robins with spring. In fact, they are quite hardy against cold weather. The results of several years of bird counts have shown that they can be found very far north during February, but if there is even a small amount of snow on the ground, the robins leave the area. Robins feed on insects and other foods found on the ground and they will feed on berries and fruits found in shrubs and trees. When the ground is covered in snow, a large portion of their food source is covered up, so they leave.

Other ground feeders don't necessarily move completely away when snow covers the ground. Juncos are in the sparrow family and are often nicknamed "snow birds" because they migrate south from heavy snow areas of Canada to the still snowy areas of the northern United States during the winter.

This event is developed and managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, with sponsorship from Wild Birds Unlimited storeowners.

Researchers hope that by learning more about the birds and habitats in their own backyards, families will decide to become part of Project FeederWatch, a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders.

E-mail questions to Jeff Rugg, Kendall County unit educator, University of Illinois Extension at

Copyright 2009 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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