Great Backyard Bird Count This Weekend

Three-dozen or so pigeons were perching on a utility line in the alley in back of my neighbor’s house this morning. Suddenly, all the birds took off.

What spooked them? I’m sure it wasn’t any movement I made from inside the house. Then a crow came along, and the black bird found himself the object of harassment when the flock of pigeons swooped at it. A moment later, the pigeons were gone, and the crow found a perch on the streetlight in front of the neighbor’s house.

A few minutes later, the crow moved on and the pigeons were back in residence doing their high wire act.

Last summer, I was intrigued to see a red squirrel scrambling along the top of the wooden fence in our backyard. That was a surprise, as it was the first time I’d ever seen a red squirrel in Butte. The squirrel didn’t hang around long, as half a dozen magpies, that also didn’t think the squirrel belonged, were chasing it.

Moments of wildlife drama, and it’s just one of many such moments that take place every day right in our backyards.

These vignettes are my way of noting that this coming Presidents Day holiday weekend, it will again be time for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, along with their Canadian partner, Bird Studies Canada. This weekend will mark the 15th annual celebration of birds in winter. Last year, participants submitted over 92,000 reports of bird observations, the third consecutive year of observations exceeding 90,000.

The goal of the Great Backyard Bird Count is to get a continent-wide snapshot of bird populations and their distribution, and to get a handle on trends that may be happening. For example, last year, the most numerous bird counted was the European starling, a bird not native to North America. In 1890 and 1891, 100 starlings were introduced to New York’s Central park. A little over a century later, the descendants of those birds now number over 200 million and are distributed across the entire continent.

Snowy owls are birds that have been in the news in recent weeks. These are arctic birds but this winter there have been sightings across many northern states, including Montana, and as far south as Boise, Idaho. With our generally snow-free fields across southwestern Montana, this might be a good weekend to take a drive in the country to see if any of those snowy owls are in our area. These large, white owls should be easy to spot.

Participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count is easy. Just make a point of spending as little as 15 minutes on one or more days this coming weekend: Friday, February 17, through Monday, February 20. You can do this from inside the house, or go for a walk in your neighborhood, or go for a drive around town or the countryside. Make a note as to what birds you see and how many, and then when you get back home, log onto the internet to, and follow the instructions on how to submit your list.

This could also be a good group project for a class, family, or scout troop. It’s a great way to introduce kids to nature and the wildlife that lives around us.

As for this weekend, let’s note that the holiday officially commemorates the birthday of our first president, George Washington, who was born February 22, 1732. Actually, at the time Washington was born the British Empire still followed the Julian calendar, which by that time was 11 days out of sync with the Earth’s orbit around the sun. So, Washington was born on February 11 on the old calendar.

The British Empire adopted the more accurate Gregorian calendar in 1752, skipping from Wednesday, September 2 to Thursday, September 14, and in 1753, Washington celebrated his 21st birthday on February 22.

If you need more trivia, let me know.

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.”