Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Does the Backyard Bird Count Actually Work?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Does the Backyard Bird Count Actually Work?

Article excerpt

Bird watchers around the world may hope to spend Valentine's Day weekend with the birds, contributing to the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Citizen science movements are growing globally, as communities develop their amateur interest in galaxies, frogs or - in this case - birds, to provide data that no single scholar or even research team could uncover.

"That's the only way you can really keep track of things that are so widespread," Pat Leonard of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, who coordinates the 2016 Great Backyard Bird Count, says in a phone interview. "The Internet made that possible."

The bird counts, beginning with the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count a century ago, are some of the oldest and best examples of citizen science. Last year's bird count drew an estimated 144,000 ornithology enthusiasts from more than 100 countries, and publicity about the 2016 event - which will run from February 13 to 15 - suggests this year could be record-breaking and will make a significant contribution to the body of bird knowledge.

"Data sets for birds are probably one of the most complete that we have because people have been watching for so long," Ms. Leonard says.

Bird count data can help to track not just the numbers, but also the movement of a species. The Eurasian collared dove, for example, is a dove species that began moving into North America from the Bahamas in 1982. Because of bird count data, Leonard says researchers could track the species as it moved northward through the contiguous United States and finally into Alaska. The monitoring has, for the present, also allayed fears the bird might harm native dove species.

The bird counts also provided striking evidence of West Nile virus in North America because it impacted the number of crows in the United States so dramatically.

"If you were just looking in your backyard or in your neighborhood, it might not look that significant," she says. "But when we were looking at a continental scale, their numbers were down something like 30 percent."

Does relying on amateurs with binoculars at a backyard birdfeeder really constitute science, and is the collected data useful? …

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