The populations of a number of bird species have been in decline, and scientists are appealing to the public for volunteers to help them put together a better picture of what’s happening in the ecosystem through the Great Backyard Bird Count.

For instance, “every species of bird in North America that is found in grasslands is declining significantly,” says Dick Cannings, senior projects manager for Bird Studies Canada.  

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a revolutionary research project that helped bring this decline to light. The 17th annual count starts Friday, Feb. 14 and runs through Monday, Feb. 17 this year.

The count is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, both based in New York, in partnership with Bird Studies Canada, based in Ontario. Without the joint efforts of expert and novice bird-watchers, scientists say they would never know the full extent of changes to bird populations.

“When you send a biologist out to do a bird survey, they find out something from one spot and it costs a lot of money. But here, for a relatively small amount of money, we can get coverage of the whole continent,” says Cannings.

The commitment

Anyone in the world who can donate as little as 15 minutes can join the bird count and fill out a tally sheet to help form a real-time, global snapshot of the health and size of bird populations in their area.

“The one rule is that you have to do it over one of those four days over the weekend, and you have to spend at least 15 minutes counting birds,” Cannings says.

Blue Jay

The Blue Jay is one of the birds you might spot during the Great Backyard Bird Count. And through ongoing projects like eBird or FeederWatch, people can keep track of the health of birds in their regions all year. (Courtesy Mark Eden)

Birdwatching can be done anywhere - it “could be on your balcony, it could be in your backyard or you could go down to the local duck pond or … or you could go to Algonquin park,” Cannings adds.

Last year’s bird count went beyond North America for the first time and shattered records for the number of bird species that were identified. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, people from 111 countries and territories from all seven continents recorded more than 34.5 million birds, representing almost 4,000 species, in just four days.

This is “about 40 per cent of the world's species,” says Cannings.

“Let’s put it this way, I’ve been bird watching all my life, I’ve been all over the world and I still have not yet seen 4,000 species,” Cannings adds.

How to identify birds

The researchers ask that during the count, birds be recorded and described as they are in a field guide so that researchers know exactly what people are seeing in their region. For example, participants would report sighting a ‘white-crowned sparrow’ instead of just ‘sparrow.’

Field guides can be bought at many local and online bookstores, but there are also free online resources that can help narrow the search when identifying birds. The Cornell lab of Ornithology has an online guide where people can search for specific names or browse by body shape and match the bird they saw to the proper species name.

For birders on-the-go, the Cornell lab also has the Merlin Bird ID App that provides instant help naming more than 285 North American species. The app is only available for the iPhone right now, but the Android version is expected to be released in the spring of 2014.

The most common bird species are accessible through the app, but “there [are] around 600 species of bird in Canada,” says Cannings, so the rare animals will require a little detective work to identify.

Besides being an enormous help to researchers, this project is meant as a fun and easy introduction to bird-watching for people.

Cannings says that “the backyard bird count is kind of like a gateway drug,” because after trying it, some people decide that they want to participate in meaningful bird-watching projects more often than just once a year.

To continue bird-watching throughout the year, you can register for free with eBird or project FeederWatch. These are ongoing citizen science bird counts that encourage regular monitoring of local bird populations.

“eBird is like the Great Backyard Bird Count every day of the year,” says Cannings.