Backyard Bird Count

Just last week while walking the wee ones to school, I heard the happy song of chickadees calling “seeee-breeze” from the mid level branches just over our heads. It’s a sound that lightens one’s mid-winter heart as this mating song signifies that spring is indeed on its way. It’s also a reminder that the annual Great Backyard Bird Count is about to begin – and it’s time to dust off the binoculars and dedicate a bit of time to outdoor observation and citizen science.

The Backyard Bird Count, hosted by The Audubon Society and Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, was launched in 1998 as the first “online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time.” Participation is easy: simply register, spend 15 minutes on one or more days during the established date range (this year it’s February 12-15), and enter your results on the Backyard Bird Count website. There’s also an app, eBird, for mobile device users.

Information submitted by people from around the world provides scientists studying bird population and habitat trends with a snapshot of bird distribution and density. It affords them significantly more information than could be gathered by scientists alone.

Expert Skills Not Required

If you’re worried about your bird id skills, Bird Count and Nature Net staff alike recommend the Merlin Bird ID app or a good old fashioned field guide to aid in determining what you see. However, if you’re still not certain, the data entry checklist offers options like “hawk” or “Downy/Hairy Woodpecker” to allow for vague determinations.

The Backyard Bird Count website posts a real-time map of bird sightings as they’re entered across the globe and, during the Bird Count, users can view species-specific sightings on a global map. They also offer a photo contest with prizes from Wild Birds Unlimited. So, join the scientific field: listen for those “seeee-breeze” songs, record what you hear and see, and know that you’re helping bird conservation efforts around the world.

Nature Net News Flashback:

Nature Net News has been posting monthly articles for over 11 years! Check out this still-relevant post from 2008 (amazingly, the links still work!):

In general, bird calls are distinguished from bird songs in that they are shorter vocalizations associated with warnings or inter-flock communication. Conversely, songs are associated with courtship and mating and often sound more melodious to the human ear. It turns out, whichever you hear on your outdoor treks, bird communication is more complex than once thought – and there’s certainly more behind the clamor than meets the ear.

The sounds birds make (other than sonates or non-vocal communication sounds) turn out to be created quite differently from the human voice. While both humans and birds have nostrils, a mouth, and a trachea through which air travels to reach two lungs, where the tube branches to enter the lungs, birds possess a structure called the syrinx. By tightening syrinx muscles and changing the tympanic membranes inside, birds can get creative with sounds and since both branches of the syrinx have a membrane, they can create two notes simultaneously. While we use about 2% of the air passing through our vocal cords to talk (or sing), birds use almost 100%.

Interestingly, like humans, birds must learn how to communicate by first listening to adult birds – they even go through a “babbling” stage before becoming proficient in song. Studies conducted on how white crown sparrows accomplish their distinct song found that youngsters learn the pattern of whistles, chirps, and tweets as sequential segments (as in, whistle A always precedes chirp B) and could actually be induced to sing their song backward.

Scientists are intrigued as this may help in understanding how human speech develops. Take a listen to this National Public Radio article to learn more. For more general information on the remarkable world of birdsong, visit PBS’s The Life of Birds with host David Attenborough.

To Do This Month:

Become a citizen scientist and take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, February 12-15, 2016. If you don’t want to swing it alone, sign your kids up for the February 15th Vacation Day program focused on the Bird Count at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center.

Grab your your binoculars and a field guide and explore a section of the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail or, try these suggested birding hotspots from Travel Wisconsin.

While you’re looking to the skies by day for birds, keep your gaze upwards through the night with these offerings at Nature Net members sites, including the February Starry Skies theme at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center’s exhibit area, UW Arboretum’s Winter Birds walk this weekend, a Snow Moon night hike on the 20th, or a Night Sky family hike on the 28th.

Our Favorite Bird Books

February Events

Upham Woods

Bird Seed Cutouts

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For Educators:

Bird Sleuth K-12

Make bird observations, collect data, and share what you’ve compiled with real scientists using Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bird Sleuth program. Cornell provides interactive materials like Focus Bird Game Cards, bird ID quizzes, posters and a suite of ideas on how to teach and learn about birds, diversity and adaptations.

Cornell provides the materials, training, and encouragement, and with kits geared towards varied grade levels, there’s something for anyone teaching grades 2 through 12. The team at Bird Sleuth hopes that by getting involved, you’ll encourage kids to use scientific inquiry, spend time outdoors connecting with nature, and motivate students through real world data collection that is useful to scientists and bird conservation.

Bird Sleuth also offers materials for homeschool parents, after school providers, and informal educators. And, there’s no need to be a bird expert to get started – Bird Sleuth provides all the background info and connects to state and Next Generation Science standards.

For Families:

Bring the Birds

Famed naturalist and author Joseph Cornell – who, by the way, recently released a new book entitled “Sharing Nature: Nature Awareness Activities for All Ages” – offers nature activities designed to either awaken enthusiasm, focus attention, offer direct experience, or share inspiration. One of his “direct experiences” exercises suggests tips on attracting small birds for an up close encounter. Find a spot where you can comfortably stand or sit motionless and partially hidden.

Once you are settled and the activity has died down, begin making a series of rhythmically-repeated “psssh” sounds: “pssh…pssh…pssh…” Each series should last about three seconds. Repeat and pause after three or four rounds to listen and watch for incoming birds.

Why it works: this is a type of “universal” warning or alert sound in the bird world. It often attracts curious on-lookers who want to see what the alert is all about.

Here’s a few more bird ideas culled from the world wide web: Ice Sculpture Bird Feeders, 32 Homemade Bird Feeders, and 9 Tips for Bird Watching with Kids