For the Birds Radio Program: The Great Backyard Bird Count 2008

Original Air Date: Feb. 1, 2008 Rerun Dates: Feb. 11, 2010; Feb. 11, 2009

An annual tradition is easy, fun, and very worthwhile.

Duration: 4′27″


Every year since 1998, the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have overseen a wonderful project called the Great Backyard Bird Count. People all over Canada and the United States watch birds for all or any part of a four-day period in February, keeping track of the numbers of individuals of every species they see during the time they’re participating in the Count. They can count the birds in their own backyard or go as far afield as they like. The project is, in some ways, similar to the Christmas Bird Count. But the Christmas count requires participants to work within specific count circles 15 miles in diameter, and each circle must be covered by a minimum number of ten participants, so most Christmas counts end up being social affairs in addition to important citizen science projects. The Great Backyard Bird Count allows individuals to participate no matter where they are, giving this event a more personal feel even as we load our data up on the internet. If the two counts are different in some ways, they each provide invaluable insights into bird movements and populations. Christmas Bird Counts are scheduled between December 14 and January 3, and late migrants are often found during the count period that retreat farther south within days or weeks and have vanished by February. The Great Backyard Bird Count is set for mid-February, often the peak period for observing wandering finches and other irruptive species that haven’t even started to arrive in many areas in December, so we get a great snapshot of their late winter whereabouts. The Christmas Bird Count has been held every year since 1900, and many count circles have been covered every year for many decades, so we get valuable insights of changes over time. The Great Backyard Bird Count is much newer—the first one was held in 1998, and each one has had significantly more participants than the previous one, so there isn’t the huge, consistent volume of past data to compare numbers with, at least not yet. But because every bird tallied on a Christmas Bird Count must be seen within a specific count circle, many birds are overlooked. An extremely rare Ross’s Gull that turned up in the Twin Cities on their count day wasn’t seen within any official count circles, and so wasn’t counted at all as far as the Christmas Bird Count data set goes. Anyone who spots a bird anywhere in the United States or Canada during the Great Backyard Bird Count can count it, so overall this methodology provides for wider coverage, and over time as the event grows and then stabilizes, changes in numbers seen will be extremely useful in detecting population trends. Sadly, I won’t be able to count any of the birds in my Ithaca backyard during this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count, but happily it’s because I’ll be in northern Minnesota, participating in the Sax-Zim Birding Festival. I’ll once again be focusing on my beloved northern specialties like Great Grays and Northern Hawk-Owls and Boreal Chickadees instead of my new Tufted Titmouse buddies. I’ll try to find someone to count my new backyard birds as I get back into counting my old backyard birds. Wherever you live, I hope you’ll be out there counting YOUR backyard birds. This year’s Great Backyard Bird Count takes place on February 15th through 18th. You can learn more about it at