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.

Ground Hog Day Fact & Trivia

For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day,
So far will the snow swirl until May.
For as the snow blows on Candlemas Day,
So far will the sun shine before May. Old English proverb

Today, February 2, is Groundhog Day. According to tradition, on this day, woodchucks, also known as groundhogs, emerge from their hibernation to venture outside, look around, and if they see their shadow, it means another six weeks of winter. On the other hand, if it’s overcast, it’s a sign of an early spring.

In the U.S., Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a small town in west central Pennsylvania, is generally considered Groundhog Day Central, and the setting of the 1993 movie, Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character is forced to relive the day over and over again until he can learn to give up his selfishness and become a better person. While Punxsutawney gets the most publicity, many other communities from Georgia and Alabama, north to Ontario, and as far west as Aurora, Colorado and Dallas, Texas, have Groundhog Day observances of one kind or another.

While American observances of Groundhog Day have their origins from early Pennsylvania Dutch in Pennsylvania, the celebration has its origins in early European and Celtic folklore.

An early written reference to Groundhog Day comes from an 1841 diary entry of a Pennsylvania storekeeper, James Morris, who wrote, “Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas Day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out as the weather is to be moderate.”

Candlemas Day has origins in the early Christian church, marking the presentation of the baby Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem, forty days after his birth in Bethlehem. In some churches, people bring beeswax candles to the church on February 2 to be blessed, as the holy man, Simeon, held the baby in his arms and proclaimed he would be a light to the gentiles.

In some Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries, Candlemas Day is called Candelaria Day. In Portugal, the custom asserts, “If the Candelaria is smiling (sunshine), the winter is still to come, if the Candelaria is crying (raining), the winter is out.”

We don’t have woodchucks in western Montana, though we do have other marmots, the yellow-bellied marmot, often known as a rock chuck, and the hoary marmot, which is found in high alpine areas, above the tree line. Asking, on February 2, either of these animals what the weather is going to be in coming weeks is likely a waste of time, as they are going to be in full hibernation this time of year.

As to whether to believe the various Groundhog Day weather predictions, I’d suggest a grain of salt. In 2011, for example, Smith Lake Jake of Alabama, Octorara Orphie, Quarryville, Pennsylvania, and Mountain Maryland Murray, Cumberland, Maryland, all saw their shadow and predicted more winter weather. On the other hand Grady the Groundhog, Chimney Rock, North Carolina, Minnie the Groundhog, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, and Punxsutawney Phil, himself, all predicted an early spring. I couldn’t make up those names, by the way.

Groundhog Day proponents claim the predictions are right 75 to 90 percent of the time. On the other hand, a Canadian study for 13 cities in the past 30 to 40 years put the success rate at 37 percent. The National Climatic Data Center stated the overall prediction accuracy rate is around 39 percent.

In short, you’d be more accurate in predicting the weather by flipping a coin, instead of relying on woodchucks for this vital information. On the other hand, around here, an early spring as compared to six more weeks of winter is pretty much the same thing.

Finally, in this political year, I’ll mention that in Alaska, Groundhog Day is officially called Marmot Day, as there are few groundhogs in Alaska. The holiday change was passed by the Alaska legislature in 2009 and signed into law by then-Governor Sarah Palin. Gotta love her.