The Great Backyard Bird Count for 2011

Here’s a sure-fire cure for cabin fever, an opportunity to get out of the house and get involved in a science project that’s easy, fun and important.

Yes, it’s time, once again, for the Great Backyard Bird Count, the annual cooperative project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Audubon Society, and Bird Studies Canada. The object of the Bird Count is to get a snapshot of North American birds and where they are in mid-February, in the weeks before spring migrations. The study period, as always, is this weekend, February 18 – 21, the Washington’s Birthday holiday weekend.

According to sponsors of the Bird Count, bird populations are constantly changing. No single scientist or team of scientists can realistically keep track of the complicated patterns of bird movement, or how the various bird species range expands or shrinks over time. The information accumulated in this citizens’ project goes into a massive bird database called the Avian Knowledge Network, which now holds some 36 million records of bird observations.

It’s easy to participate. It’s simply a matter of making a point to count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the study. If you have a bird feeder you could do it from the window of your house, or take a walk in your neighborhood or in a park. However you do it, just keep track of the different birds you found and their numbers. Then log onto the internet to and submit your list of birds identified and counted.

There are tips and instructions, including videos, slide shows, forms, and other helpful information at If you’re a shutterbug, there is also a photography contest.

Last year in Montana, volunteer observers reported 121 species of birds. Canada geese and mallard ducks were the most widely reported birds, an indication of how well waterfowl are adapted to northern winters as well as how they adapt to urban areas. In addition to waterfowl, observers noted game birds such as pheasants, partridge, ruffed grouse, wild turkeys and even California quail. Other common birds included crows, ravens, chickadees, nuthatches, Bohemian waxwings and various sparrows.

You don’t have to be an expert or a birdwatcher to participate. Just do it because it’s fun.

As this is the Washington’s Birthday holiday weekend, or Presidents Day, as some call it, let’s have a little history lesson about another president, Andrew Jackson.

Recently some Montana legislators have talked about ‘nullification,’ asserting some sort of right for Montana to opt out of Federal legislation such as health care, or going off on tangents such as defining citizenship contrary to the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, and conveniently ignoring a basic principle that federal law trumps state law.

This is an old argument that precipitated a national crisis during the presidency of President Jackson. Jackson’s first term Vice President, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, raised the issue over a tariff law considered to be harmful to southern states. Calhoun’s home state of South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union over the issue.

Calhoun understood that secession would likely ruin his own presidential ambitions, so he came up with the theory that a state could declare a law “null and void within the limits of the State.”

Calhoun and Jackson vehemently disagreed. Jackson dropped Calhoun from the ticket in the 1832 election. In Congress, prominent leaders entered the debate, including the likes of Daniel Webster, John Quincy Adams, and a new Vice President, Martin Van Buren.

South Carolina’s tariff dispute with the federal government finally ended with legislative compromise so there was no final resolution to the question of nullification, though the controversy contributed to South Carolina’s eventual secession and the Civil War.

Andrew Jackson was a study in contradictions. He was a strong believer in rights for the common man, even though he was a slave owner. He was a strong supporter of states’ rights though his presidency’s most important achievement was preserving the union through the nullification crisis. He summed up his guiding principle simply:

“Our Federal Union—it must be preserved.”

Great Backyard Bird Count – 2010

The days are getting longer, and on sunny afternoons the sun has a little more power every day. It may be winter in Montana but spring is on its way, and one sign of spring is that this weekend will be the 13th annual Great Backyard Bird Count.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is an annual effort sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society and, this year, a new partner, Bird Studies Canada

The object of the Great Backyard Bird Count is to get a snapshot as to bird numbers and species and where they are in mid-February, near the end of winter and just before the beginning of the spring migrations.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a way for almost anybody to participate in this major scientific study of birds. It’s easy and it’s simple. All there’s to it is to go outside sometime this weekend, Friday, February 12 through February 15, and make a note at what birds you see. When you get back in the house, just log onto the internet to and report your observations. You don’t have to be a regular birder to participate. You can participate on one day, or every day. It’s up to you.
Last year, participants turned in more than 93,600 reports, making it the continent’s largest snapshot of bird populations ever recorded.

Taking part in the Great Backyard Bird Count is a great way to get outside with family and friends, have fun, and help birds—all at the same time,” said Audubon Education Vice President, Judy Braus. “Even if you can only identify a few species you can provide important information that enables scientists to learn more about how the environment is changing and how that affects our conservation priorities.”

“The GBBC is a perfect first step towards the sort of intensive monitoring needed to discover how birds are responding to environmental change,” said Janis Dickinson, the director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab. “Winter is such a vulnerable period for birds, so winter bird distributions are likely to be very sensitive to change. There is only one way—citizen science—to gather data on private lands where people live and GBBC has been doing this across the continent for many years. GBBC has enormous potential both as an early warning system and in capturing and engaging people in more intensive sampling of birds across the landscape.

Last year in Montana, some highlights of the bird count reported large numbers of waterfowl, with Canada geese leading all bird species, with 18,600 birds reported. Mallard ducks came in next with 5,901. Other game birds spotted included pheasants, Hungarian (gray) partridge, sharptail grouse, ruffed grouse and wild turkeys, among others. Surprisingly, there were even some sightings of California quail.

It’s also interesting to look back to 1998, the first year of the Great Backyard Bird Count. Amazingly, there weren’t any game birds or waterfowl reported in Montana. Most of the birds reported that year were of what I might consider as urban birds, along the lines of chickadees, pigeons, sparrows and the like. I’d surmise that the difference would reflect wider participation and getting out in the countryside to see what’s out there.

Another striking difference is that in 1998 there were no eagle sightings. In 2009 there were 398 bald eagle and 70 golden eagle sightings reported. Again, it’s an indication of greater and more varied participation by citizen observers.

Again, it’s easy to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count. You can do it as a family, as a classroom, or by yourself. Take a walk in your neighborhood or take a drive out in the countryside. If you have a bird book and pair of binoculars, that can help you spot and identify birds. Then when you get home, log onto the internet and make your report. There’s also a photo contest that goes along with the project, so take your camera along, too (details, and photos from previous years, are on the web).

Best of all, if you’re suffering from cabin fever, going outside is the best cure.