Greatbackyard_Bird2Ornithologists, scientists who study birds, have their hands full. Birds are an important component of the environment, because they limit insect populations and spread seeds for many of our native flowering plants. They are also key indicator species, meaning that changes in their health and numbers give scientists clues as to the quality of habitats they call home. So, recognizing changes in bird occurrences (where and when they are found), as well as their overall numbers, helps scientists take the temperature of our environment. But how can the limited number of scientists who specialize in ornithology gain an understanding of these factors on a national and worldwide level? Well, that’s where you come in!

The Great Backyard Bird Count, a project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a worldwide endeavor that invites participants of all ages and abilities to report real-time observations of our fine-feathered friends. Observations are then used by research scientists to answer a variety of questions, including the impact of climate change on birds and how populations are changing in rural and urban areas. The effort is a citizen science project, which “is a way that everyday people can report what they observe to scientists and thereby help wildlife in a meaningful way,” notes Trudie Henninger, citizen science coordinator at The North Carolina Arboretum.

To help commemorate this global event and encourage participation, the Arboretum will host its own Great Backyard Bird Count Day on Saturday, February 11, from 8 a.m. to noon. GreatBackyardBirdCount_3This free, public event (standard Arboretum non-member parking fees apply) will include guided birding walks, a live raptor presentation, birding crafts, a self-led bird scavenger hunt, presentations from visiting conservation organizations and more. Event participants will learn how to identify birds and how to upload their observations to eBird, an online citizen science database that is connected to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology project. The Arboretum’s Bird Count Day occurs one week prior to Cornell’s Great Backyard Bird Count, which runs February 17 – 20.

“The goal of this event is to not only encourage people to develop an interest in birding,” says Jonathan Marchal, the Arboretum’s youth education manager, “but also to encourage people to contribute to the understanding of our environment and how we impact it. This can lead to positive changes for birds and other wildlife as scientists receive more data and people take action such as putting up bird houses and feeders, in addition to reporting observations.”

Keep on Counting

Where else can people observe more birds and add to the count? Anywhere! Including, of course, outside their window. In addition, bird lovers can attend a special West Asheville Bird Count on Saturday, February 18, starting at 11 a.m. at the West Asheville library. Children will receive a free pair of binoculars and learn how they can join the Arboretum’s ecoEXPLORE program, a citizen science initiative that encourages children to submit photographs of wildlife and rewards them with prizes and field tools, such as insect nets, bird feeders, iPod Touch units and more.

Whether you choose to join a flock or search for birds solo, pick up a pair of binoculars, create a checklist and start counting birds for science!