The Second Annual Backyard Bird Count

(This column first appeared in the February 15, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    Sometimes science is not just the domain of trained professionals. You and I can contribute.

    A case in point. This coming Friday to Monday, February 19th-22nd, you can participate in the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's 2nd Annual Backyard Bird Count. All you need to do is count the birds in your yard or neighborhood on one of those days and forward your results to the project. The one catch: on the Niagara Frontier you must report online by computer. (In other areas you can report through a local Wild Birds Unlimited Store. That chain and the Ford Motor Company are corporate sponsors of the project.)

    For those who can use a computer to access the World Wide Web, the reporting process is straightforward. You simply enter the address "http://birdsource.cornell.edu/gbbc" and follow the instructions given there. Others who are not yet comfortable with this increasingly pervasive technology can learn about this remarkable network at your local library. Most librarians can show you the simple steps to sign on and enter your data.

    The inclusion of Friday and Monday should also encourage school participation. Many classrooms have bird feeders mounted outside their windows. Students can record and report the chickadees, nuthatches, jays, cardinals and any other birds visiting the feeder they have kept filled through this unusual winter.

    You will notice that this is the second of these counts. Why did I not write about the first? I did know about it last year, but I harbored major reservations. How would the count managers control erroneous reports: simple misidentifications or even spurious counts? Wouldn't these local counts provide results seriously biased in one way or another?

    I have now had an opportunity to look at the results of that first year and I am well satisfied that my concerns were met. A few misidentifications were almost certainly included -- the best bird watchers, including professionals, are not immune to this problem -- but such errors were washed out by the sheer number of reports. In 1998 over 14,000 people recorded more than a half million birds, and those numbers will surely increase this year. Also the count managers easily identified and rejected fictitious submissions.

    Last year's results provide an interesting snapshot of bird distribution across North America a week before the onset of spring migration. You can examine those results on the count website as well. Of special interest, national distribution maps are provided for 100 species. Common birds like house sparrow and crow are mapped but so too are birds less common here in winter like robin and red-winged blackbird. Western birds we see here only in pictures, like Wile E. Coyote's friend the roadrunner, are also charted.

    I learned much from examining these maps. For example, I checked the black-capped chickadee to see how far south it migrated and found that it seldom occurred south of West Virginia. To compare its range with that of its southern relative, the Carolina chickadee (a black-cap near look-alike with a higher, faster call), I examined its map as well. It was recorded all the way north to the western New York-Pennsylvania border, quite remarkable for a bird listed only as hypothetical in western New York. Although misidentifications may be involved, this unusual situation is certainly worth further exploration.

    There is much to be learned from these maps, but still more will be gained when the 1999 results are posted for comparison. El Nino contributed to make 1998 a year of invasion by such boreal species as redpolls, pine and evening grosbeaks and pine siskins. This year appears to be quite different with very few northern invaders but many more lingering migrants like robins and bluebirds.

    I urge you to take this opportunity to participate in a worthwhile project. -- Gerry Rising