Counting for Science: A Recap of Great Backyard Bird Count

On February 18, Baker Sanctuary held its fourth annual Great Backyard Bird Count. This year we had 32 participants ranging in age from four to retired. Folks were split into four groups based on their age and hiking ability and counted birds for a solid two hours on four different trails. In total 21 species and 68 individuals were duly noted with the highlights being a very vocal Hutton’s Vireo, a raucous pair of Common Ravens, and a Red-shouldered Hawk observed ripping into some unfortunate prey item. I led the pre-K to first grader group and, while they were not the best at finding birds, they did excel at chasing butterflies. More importantly, they had a blast.

Launched in 1998 by a joint partnership between the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) was the first of its kind. Over a four day period in February citizen-scientists from around the globe collected data on wild birds and submitted thousands of lists for analysis. While citizen-science projects certainly existed prior to 1998, the GBBC was unique in that the results from the data were displayed in a near real-time fashion, allowing participants to quickly see the fruits of their labor.

Nineteen years later the GBBC is going strong and gaining momentum. In addition to generating interest in citizen-scientists, the GBBC also provides valuable data for scientists, data which simply could not be collected on a similar scale and thoroughness without the participation of the public. Scientists analyze the data from the GBBC to help answer questions regarding the effects of climate change on bird populations, timing of migration, how bird diversity differs by region and more. Each year, as more checklists are submitted, the data set becomes more robust and informative.

The rules of the GBBC are simple: count birds for at least 15 minutes anywhere you like and submit a list via eBird. A wealth of good information can be found at the GBBC website: It does not require expert birding skills, just the willingness to brave a potentially chilly February morning. Participants in the GBBC have increased annually with 2017 being a banner year. An estimated 214,000 people participated globally and submitted 173,826 lists representing 5,940 species! In North America, not surprisingly, the three most reported species were the Northern Cardinal, American Crow, and Mourning Dove. Texas represented on the national level, coming in fifth for most checklists submitted.

When February 2018 rolls around, consider participating in the GBBC by joining us at Baker, counting in your backyard, or organizing a count at your local school. Each checklist submitted gives scientists more data to inform their research and, perhaps more importantly, helps Texas show up California in checklist submissions (they got third this year). Many thanks to the exceptional volunteers Beth Samuelson, Shana King, and Skip Mencio who helped lead the GBBC at Baker Sanctuary!

Chris Murray is Travis Audubon’s Land Manager and Educator at Baker Sanctuary. You can learn more about the sanctuary here.