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Birders in Ithaca and Beyond Take on The Great Backyard Bird Count


LANSING – The Cornell Lab of Ornithology established a mission for birders throughout the world: go out into your backyard, record which birds you hear and see, and upload the data. Those who  participated last weekend joined  hundreds of thousands in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, held by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in partnership with the Audubon Society and Birds Canada.

For its 25th year, from Feb. 18 until Feb. 21, birdwatchers new and experienced collaborated in this massive data gathering effort. During those four days participants counted birds they saw or heard for 15 minutes or more before reporting their sightings to the eBird mobile app or website. The Lab of Ornithology says that this year resulted in an event record of over 7,000 species being logged among participants with over 288,000 eBird submissions logged during the event.

Becca Rodomsky-Bish, the project manager of the Great Backyard Bird Count with the Lab of Ornithology, said that this information is really valuable to those at the Lab and in the field as a whole, giving a worldwide glimpse at bird populations, species, habitats and more. She said that in 2021, data inputted in the eBird database was used in over 140 publications.

The event goes beyond just the gathering of data. The Bird Count brings new people closer to birding, and birders closer to the science that supports it.

“It can be a spark opportunity,” Rodomsky-Bish said. “So maybe somebody who just casually has noticed birds, whether they feed them or they just kind of see them, sometimes that extra step of actually identifying that bird, and then sharing that identification with a larger organization that’s using it for research can kind of spark this ‘oh, wow, that my observations have some merit here, I can actually do something with this information’.”

She said that for experienced birders, it can push them to contribute their observations to something bigger than themselves.

As submissions were entered over the weekend, a map on the event’s website allowed the curious to see all of the spots bird data is submitted from in real time, with the biggest numbers so far being in the U.S., India, and Canada.

Tristan Berlet, a first-time participant in the count, said that the application was simple to use, and that the event was a great motivator to get closer to nature.

“It’s always nice to lend a hand and see how things are and again, just any excuse to get outside and get wandering around,” Berlet said. “And of course interesting because, you know, sort of seeing what they’re thinking as they wander around.”

Birders Led by Paul Anderson Observing Wildlife in Sapsucker Woods During the Beginner Bird Walk | Source: Jay Bradley

Paul Anderson, a member of the local Cayuga Bird Club, says being able to log your sightings in eBird and participate in events like this has been a game-changer.

“It’s kind of revolutionized ornithology and the hobby of birdwatching,” Anderson said. “We can do things now that we just couldn’t do before.”

He said that the Ithaca area is a fantastic place to participate in the hobby with its various parks and wildlife preserves nearby and that birding is something very important to him.

“For me personally, it’s several things,” Anderson said. “It’s still a way of getting out into the outdoors and having to find something concrete to do that makes it really interesting, and watching birds is, in a sense, a bit like a treasure hunt.”

The Need for Research and Tracking

The Great Backyard Bird Count is in its 25th year, and while people have been watching and tracking birds for all of history, there’s now another motivating factor behind the effort.

In 2019, the first ever comprehensive assessment of the net population changes of birds in the U.S. and Canada was published by members of wildlife research organizations. including the Lab of Ornithology. The report showed that the North American bird population has had a net decline of nearly 3 billion adult birds of breeding age with losses across biomes since 1970, especially among common birds.

The analysis used data from similar events like Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count. While the eBird dataset and the Great Backyard Bird Count was not used for this study, Rodomsky-Bish said that having this snapshot of data every year for future research can be very important.

“We can’t really put our finger on the pulse of status and trends if we don’t have longitudinal data,” Rodomsky-Bish said. “So if we hadn’t had the 50 year Christmas bird count, we wouldn’t be able to look at those numbers, and honestly, the scientists that are in the lab that I see every day were shocked at the results.”

She said that when scientists observed the data’s trends and examined their results, it was a wake-up call for them.

“I think for anybody that’s involved in bird conservation that, you know, this is the real deal, is happening here,” Rodomsky-Bish said. “We have to continue to push the envelope of conservation in terms of birds and creating habitat and protecting habitat for them because many, many different bird populations are struggling right now.”

IMG - Bird Feeders at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Feeders at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology | Source: Jay Bradley

To support bird populations, Rodomsky-Bish says that there are things that everyone can do to help, and that organizations like the Lab of Ornithology and Audubon cannot do it alone. The Lab of Ornithology has published seven actions that people can do to help the bird populations:

  1. Make windows safer by installing screens and other means of breaking up reflections
  2. Keep cats indoors, as the nonnative pets are the number one human-caused reason for the loss of birds other than habitat loss
  3. Introduce more native plants to your yards, giving birds more shelter, nesting space, and food sources
  4. Avoid pesticides, as many are toxic to birds either directly or from consuming contaminated seeds or insects
  5. Replace your coffee source with one that’s shade-grown to support birds’ habitats
  6. Reduce plastic usage to lower your impact on plastic pollution in waterways and other bird habitats
  7. Observe, share, and record birds for projects like eBird

 Getting Involved Locally

The Backyard Bird Count ended on Feb.21, and while birders will have to wait until next year to participate in the focused collaborative experience of the event, the public can log observations into eBird at any time to help contribute. There is also a free online course to introduce people to birding with the app.

Birders in Ithaca and Beyond Take on the Great Backyard Bird Count
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Sapsucker Woods in Lansing | Source: Jay Bradley

Birders can also get involved locally with events and courses like those hosted by the Cayuga Bird Club and the Lab of Ornithology such as the beginner bird walk at Sapsucker Woods in Lansing every Saturday at 8:30am. The Cayuga Bird Club also has an active Facebook group of local birders where enthusiasts and newcomers share bird photos, tips, and resources.

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