Remember when thousands of blackbirds mysteriously dropped from the sky in Arkansas on New Year's Eve? Here's a chance to help scientists understand what's happening with those and all the other birds across North America: join the annual Great Backyard Bird Count this week.
For four days starting Friday, Feb. 18, thousands of volunteers across the United States and Canada tally and report the birds they see and hear in the wild, in neighborhood parks or in their own backyards. The collective observations give ornithologists a "snapshot" of what's happening with bird populations.
Now in its 14th year, the count has detected ups and downs in some species. For instance, American crows, once regularly among the top four or five most frequently reported species, have become less common since 2003, when West Nile virus spread across the US. Scientists noted 50-75 percent drops in crow populations in states after the mosquito-borne disease hit.
Last year, nearly 100,000 reports were submitted toting up more than 11 million birds of 603 species. American robins topped the list, at 1.8 million sighted. The Canada goose was second, at around 750,000, with Snow goose, American crow and European starling rounding out the most commonly seen birds. Joining the list for the first time last year was the Red-billed tropicbird, spied by some adventurous birders off the Pacific coast near San Diego.
Here in Maryland, citizen scientists spotted 220,539 birds of 138 different species. Canada goose and Snow goose beat the robin hands down, with the Common grackle and Dark-eyed junco coming in third and fourth. In my backyard, I often spy a Northern cardinal or two, like the one pictured here.
It's easy to participate in the count, requiring as little as 15 minutes in a day. And as the name suggests, you don't even have to leave the warmth of your house, just look out in your backyard. The count is coordinated by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, Audubon, and Bird Studies Canada.
To join in, or to learn more about previous bird counts, go here.
(Top, Canada geese take flight near Rappahannock River, 2009. Baltimore Sun photo by Jerry Jackson. Middle, students watching for birds in Patterson Park, 2006, Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam. Bottom, Northern cardinal, taken by Heather Taylor of Maryland, courtesy Great Backyard Bird Count)