For the Birds Radio Program: Great Backyard Bird Count, 2005
One of my favorite annual traditions, though I’ve only observed it this year and last, is the Great Backyard Bird Count, sponsored by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. This count, which takes place during the four days from Friday through Monday of President’s Day Weekend, is an effort to assess bird populations throughout the continent in late winter. Because data is entered via the Internet, it’s possible to see results as they come in, rather than waiting months or sometimes years to see the totals printed up on a paper report. And if immediacy is a great advantage to the Web, saving trees, and bird habitat, to say nothing of the pollution from paper production, is another great advantage of entering and compiling all the data on the Web.
Last year, the coolest species I saw on the Great Backyard Bird Count was Hoary Redpoll—I had two in my backyard, and got some really nice photos of them. This year, I had to confirm two different species—I had 120 Pine Siskins in my yard on Sunday, and that total was more than might be typically expected. Even cooler was the single Northern Hawk Owl perched on a power line in Poplar, Wisconsin, that I saw on Friday morning. I was hoping I’d see another one in Port Wing, where I saw one a few weeks ago, but that one moved on—perhaps it was the one I saw in Poplar this time. As of Sunday night, no Northern Hawk-Owls were listed as reported for Wisconsin, but that’s because sightings of this rare species must be confirmed before being listed on official results.
It’s easy to focus on the cool birds we ourselves contribute to the Great Backyard Bird Count, but it’s even more interesting to see what sightings others have contributed. As of Sunday night, the two species that appeared on the most reports throughout the continent were the Northern Cardinal and the Mourning Dove—neither of which I saw at all. The two species with the highest total numbers were another two I didn’t see at all, the Red-winged Blackbird and the Canada Goose, both of which winter in large flocks, so although not all that many people observe them, the ones who do see a lot of them. Of course, since more participants in the Great Backyard Bird Count seem to come from states in the southeast and along the eastern seaboard, this makes sense. The other top ten species in terms of hugest total numbers of birds counted continent-wide were the European Starling, American Goldfinch, Snow Goose, Mallard, Common Grackle, Mourning Dove, House Sparrow, and Dark-eyed Junco.
But the bird with the highest numbers in at least three states, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, wasn’t on any of the top nationwide lists, though it’s a most worthy species, the Black-capped Chickadee. In my own yard, Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls outnumbered Chickadees, but overall more upper Midwest yards are visited by flocks of chickadees than flocks of winter finches. Chickadees are very tricky to count—you may only see two or three at your feeders at any given moment, but that’s because they maintain a large personal territory, despite their social, flocking nature. You need to really look in all directions to count the chickadees in your yard at a given moment, and the best way to count an entire flock is to pay attention to which way they fly off when they’re done, and count them as they pass an opening on their way out. Different flocks follow different routes, so over a day, you may notice that sometimes the birds head east, and sometimes south—this would usually mean you have two different flocks visiting. Chickadees seem like such simple, homey birds, but counting them is enjoyably challenging, and makes the Great Backyard Bird Count as fun as it is valuable.