Backyard bird watchers just wing it during informal count

A northern Cardinal will populate the lists of backyard bird counters this year.
A northern Cardinal will populate the lists of backyard bird counters this year.

The biologists that make the stewardship of our millions of feathered friends their life’s work came up with a very innovative concept for taking inventory of this precious yet very mobile wildlife resource.

A census of any kind that involves attempting to get a head count on wild animals traversing continents via the sky is a sizeable undertaking that on its surface could resemble a fool’s errand. But knowing where birds are and how many of a certain species are present is too valuable a piece of data to leave out of any sensible management plan.

So the forces at Audubon joined those at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and then invited Bird Studies Canada on board, to form a wide network of birding experts. Their goal was to organize and orchestrate the largest census of bird life that North America had ever witnessed.

Once the consortium came together, their most crucial move was to enlist a massive volunteer army of foot soldiers to do the actual counting. The group then had to come up with a practical format, and a place to handle the data.

The Great Backyard Bird Count was hatched — an annual four-day affair that utilizes bird watchers of all ages and in as many nooks and crannies across the map as possible to count birds and create a real-time snapshot of winter bird populations.

The 16th such grassroots census of bird populations, now conducted worldwide, took place from Feb. 15-18. The simple setup calls for participants to count birds for at least 15 minutes at a location of their choice, and then report their sightings online at the website.

The numbers will continue to roll in until the cutoff date on Friday, but the preliminary count has surpassed 25 million birds viewed by more than 100,000 volunteers.

The organizers are borderline giddy while waiting for all of the count information to stream in their direction.

"We're eager to see how many of the world's 10,240 bird species will be reported during the count this year," said Cornell lab director John Fitzpatrick.

"We're looking forward to this historic snapshot of birds that will be reported from around the world. We need as many people as possible to help build the wealth of data that scientists need to track the health of bird populations through time."

More than 3,100 species have been reported to date, with the northern cardinal as the most reported species, followed by the dark-eyed Junco, mourning dove, downy woodpecker and the house finch.

The most common birds observed in terms of numbers have been the snow goose, Canada goose, red-winged blackbird and the European starling.

“This is a milestone for citizen science in so many respects — number of species, diversity of countries involved, total participants, and number of individual birds recorded,” Fitzpatrick said.

Audubon chief scientist Gary Langham said he hopes that interest and involvement in the Great Backyard Bird Count continues to grow and spread around the globe.

“People who care about birds can change the world,” Langham said. “That’s why this year’s record-setting global participation is so exciting. Technology has made it possible for people everywhere to unite around a shared love of birds and a commitment to protecting them.”

While many birding enthusiasts in the northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan area took an active role in the organized international bird count, others continue to report unusual sightings from their backyard feeders, front lawns, or neighboring green space.

It looked like a somewhat normal winter day for Mel Kwiatkowski of Maumee recently as the cold, stiff wind had knocked over his recycling bins and sent him out of the house to retrieve them.

“And then I heard all of this noise, all of this chattering, and I thought it was a bunch of chickadees,” said Kwiatkowski, who has been feeding the birds in his backyard for many years. “But then I saw the rust colored breasts and realized I was looking at 10 robins, at least 10 of them, and it seemed awfully early for robins to be here in such numbers.”

Kwiatkowski had watched cardinals, sparrows and a lot of starlings gather at his feeders over the winter months, but had yet to see a robin until this gang showed up.

“I’ve never seen a robin on our feeders,” he said. “We put out sunflower seeds and another mixture of different types of seeds, but I always thought robins liked to eat bugs and worms, and there aren’t any of those around yet. They must have just been hungry so they took advantage of what was there.”

Joan Battin lives outside of Grand Rapids and she had her own episode of “early birds” recently, on what she described as a pleasant winter afternoon. Battin saw a group of birds out by her driveway, picking away at the grass like they were actively feeding.

“It was about five bluebirds — not blue jays, but bluebirds. We see a lot of blue jays and finches out here, but we’ve never seen bluebirds before this.”

Battin checked her birding book and it stated that Feb. 28 is the earliest date we should expect to see bluebirds in this area. “But they were here, a couple weeks ahead of schedule, I guess. They were gone later that day and I haven’t seen them since.”

After spending his 85 years in and around Point Place, Jess Otto got pretty accustomed to seeing Canada geese near the waters of Maumee Bay and the Maumee River. These large birds with gray bodies and a long black neck and black head used to be seasonal visitors to Ohio, but for the past half century, Canada geese have set up shop here and established sizeable resident flocks.

But what Otto saw out on the Bay View Retirees Golf Course on Summit Street recently was a first, even for an octogenarian.

“I’ve seen a lot of them around over the years, on the ponds and along the river, but I’ve never seen a congregation like this,” Otto said. “They were all hunkered down in the snow and it was a huge bunch. It’s beyond me to try and estimate how many, but there had to be hundreds of them. They were spread out all over the place.”

BIGGEST WEEK 2013: The birding extravaganza hosted by Black Swamp Bird Observatory — The Biggest Week in American Birding — will take place from May 3-12. The 10-day festival is timed to put birders from around the globe in the best position to witness the largest spring migration of songbirds in North America. With Lake Erie acting as a large hurdle on the migratory path, birds tend to stack up in the marshland woodlots along the lake’s southern shore to feed and rest before crossing the lake. During this prime viewing event, many workshops, guided birding activities, birding bus tours, and talks by birding experts are on the schedule. Extensive information on the event is available at the recently updated website.

CANADA GOOSE DAY: Magee Marsh, on State Rt. 2 near Oak Harbor, will host Canada Goose Day on March 3 from noon until 4 p.m. at the Sportsmen’s Migratory Bird Center. The Maumee Bay Carvers will demonstrate their craft, and there will be a naturalist-led marsh walk at 1pm. The event is free and open to the public.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: or 419-724-6068.