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Birders break records for Great Backyard Bird Count

Mar 5, 2015

A snowy owl takes flight.
Credit Diane McAllister

People who identify birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count logged a record 5,090 species this winter. That’s just about half the bird species in the world.

It’s part of a huge data collection effort each winter. It’s run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, and also Bird Studies Canada.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology runs ​eBird, an online bird reporting site. Marshall Iliff is an eBird project leader and one of the people who analyze all the data that come in when people report their bird sightings. He says the bitter cold this February impacted the bird count.

"It actually resulted in a drop in the number of people submitting counts this year. So a lot of people were staying inside by the fire and not venturing outside to count birds," says Iliff.

But he says the project has become more popular globally, so the researchers have seen strong growth in other areas and that resulted in a record year.  

"So those that did venture out, their contributions are really helping us understand how these very cold, very snowy, very windy winters are affecting bird populations and their movements."

A harsh winter affects birds and their migration patterns 

Cornell researchers have found that in addition to increasing mortality, harsh winters can also cause birds to move further south.

"One of the more obvious patterns that we've seen in the last few years is how the freezing of the Great Lakes may or may not trigger large-scale waterfowl movement," says Iliff. For example, researchers noted last year, when the Great Lakes froze in January, white-winged Scoter duck and rednecked grebe fled south and turned up all across the interior of the United States.

An 'echo flight' year for snowy owls

Last year, there was a major irruption of snowy owls that came down from the north in remarkable numbers. This winter, Iliff says the owls are back.

"So we've been really lucky this year to have lots of snowy owls around again, so if last year was a 10 on the scale of 1-10 for the number of snowy owls that are south of Canada, then this year is probably a 7."

He says the year following a big irruption is referred to as an 'echo flight' because it echoes the grandeur of the year before.

What the count can teach us about common backyard birds and our environment

"Both by having people connect with nature and with the common birds around them and reporting that online, it actually allows us to have this pulse on the health of the environment around us."

Iliff notes that birders get understandably excited about rare birds such as snowy owls and gryfalcons, but he says what's most important is to understand the signs that common birds give us about whether our environment is in trouble.  

"One of our fundamental philosophies here is that both by having people connect with nature, and with the common birds around them, and reporting that online, it actually allows us to have this pulse on the health of the environment around us."

He says common birds are the best way to measure that.

"Passenger pigeon, for example, was thought to be the most common bird in the world when it was around, then we hunted it literally to extinction," he says.

This year, birders from all over the world submitted more than 147,265,000 checklists. If you want to brave the cold next winter, the Great Backyard Bird Count will be held in mid-February.