BIRDS’ COLORFUL PLUMAGE CAN BRIGHTEN UP THE GLOOMIEST FEBRUARY

Burlington County Times, February 4, 2002

There’s a theory, to which I subscribe, that February is the shortest month because it’s so miserable. Snow, freezing temperatures, dreary days, cloudy nights all conspire to make February the month that defines winter.

But there is one event in the middle of the month that brightens it for me. I’m not referring to Valentine’s Day. I dislike any holiday, including Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, that tells us that we have to shower our loved ones with attention or honor our parents. Those are things we should be doing every day, not just on one day of the year.

What I am referring to is the Great Backyard Bird Count. I know there are quite a few who do not share my enthusiasm for watching wild birds – my husband and kids among them – but this is one occasion when you can being doing good while having fun.

This year, from February 15-18, will be the 5th annual GBBC, a joint project of Audubon and the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, and my 5th year of participating. Last year, 53, 343 checklists were submitted, listing 442 species and 4, 555, 111 individual birds. Four of the checklists were from me, but certainly not all those species and individuals. I was fortunate last year because the dates for the GBBC bridged a visit to my parents in Florida and my return home. I was able to count birds in the wetlands and wildlife refuges of Southern Florida as well as the wetlands and suburban backyards of Evesham Township.

It’s really quite easy to do, and the only absolute requirement is access to a computer. A good guide to birds, a decent pair of binoculars, and some familiarity with common birds help, but aren’t essential, especially if you team up with someone else who has those items. The submission form asks whether you’re reporting every bird you see, and whether your identification skills are fair, good, or excellent. And don’t worry if you don’t have a computer – the Burlington County Library system has Internet access available to the public.

To count the birds, you make note of the maximum number of birds you see at any one time of each species. If you see one blue jay, and five minutes later see two blue jays, you count two, not three – one of them could be the same one you saw later. And you don’t count male and female separately. It’s easy to tell a male from a female cardinal and know they’re two different birds, but the same isn’t true of blue jays. Counting the males and females separately can give a false impression of the relative abundance of those birds that are not dimorphic.

You can count in your backyard or in a local park or refuge within a mile of your house. Just make sure you spend at least 15 minutes a day watching and noting, and that you fill out a separate form for each location and for each day.

Counting birds is more than an eccentric hobby – although it’s less eccentric than in the past, with birding being the fastest growing and one of the most popular outdoor hobbies in the U.S. Getting a picture of the density and frequency of birds helps ornithologists track changes in habitat and weather that impact on all of us.

You can access information about the Great Backyard Bird Count at http://www.birdsource.com. And while you’re there, you can learn about Project Feeder Watch, another project of Cornell, in which volunteers count the species at their feeders every week or so from November through April. It was through PFW that the course of avian conjunctivitis in house finches was tracked.

You can also click on a variety of other sites, dealing with everything from proper placement of feeders to differentiating between those tricky look-alike species to why J. K. Rowling chose a snowy owl to be Harry Potter’s familiar.

It’s not very often that an enjoyable hobby can make a contribution to scientific research. If you’ve ever wanted to make a difference, here’s an easy way to do it. As it says on the website for the Great Backyard Bird Count, “Everyone’s contribution is important. It doesn’t matter whether you identify, count, and report the 5 species coming to your backyard feeder or the 75 species you see during a day’s outing to a wildlife refuge. Plato had his philosopher king. Cornell has dubbed its volunteers citizen scientists. Here’s your chance to embody the Platonic ideal.

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