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Every year for the past twenty years people around the world have contributed to a better universal understanding of bird numbers and movement by counting birds in their very own backyard as part of The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC)! The Great Backyard Bird Count can be a ton of fun for homeschoolers of all ages. There is no major commitment, no fee, and no professional knowledge necessary to participate.
Birding and gardening are the number one hobbies in America. Investing some time and effort into some basic birding skills can provide hours of enjoyment and family bonding time while contributing to a global effort. If you’re worried about having enough birds to count or being able to accurately identify species there are several steps you can take now to make the Great Backyard Bird Count a truly enjoyable experience.
Here are 10 tips for making the most of the Great Backyard Bird Count this year!
1. Know why counting birds is valuable.
The Great Backyard Bird Count is a citizen science project which generates data that cannot be collected by a lone individual or research group. It’s a huge coalition of individuals dedicated to learning more about our feathered friends. Here are a few more tidbits about the Great Backyard Bird Count:
- The Great Backyard Bird Count is sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society.
- This year (2017) will be the 20th annual GBBC.
- The event is four days long (Friday, February 17th – Monday, February 20th).
- Participants count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the four day event.
- Counts are reported at birdcount.org (this is your go to web site for more information!)
2. Count in a location that’s comfortable, easy to access, and likely to have birds.
You don’t have to travel far to participate. Your very own front or backyard are fabulous places to count birds. Our family loves gathering around the table, which gives us a nice view of feeders in both the front and backyards.
If your backyard doesn’t offer easy access to birds consider alternatives. Just because “backyard” is part of the name doesn’t meant that you cannot gather elsewhere to count birds. Great options might include a local park, natural area, or wildlife center. Try to plan ahead and arrange to be in areas that have feeders or food and water sources that are popular with birds that visit that location during the winter months.
3. Don’t forget to invite the birds!
Getting ready to count a bunch of birds only to find your backyard barren and without a single feathered friend can be a huge let down especially for our youngest homeschoolers. Fortunately, there are plenty of easy and fun ways you can work together to coax birds to your backyard before the Great Backyard Bird Count begins on Friday, February 17th.
If you are counting in your very own backyard try to plan a week or so ahead of time to give the birds some food and water. Birds may discover a new food or water source within seconds or minutes, but several days to a week or longer is certainly more common.
Feed the birds.
One of the best ways to lure birds to the backyard is with food. This doesn’t have to be a fancy or lengthy process. A small bag of wild bird seed or black oil sunflower seeds (a very popular choice for many birds) can often be purchased at the supermarket.
Sprinkle the seeds on grassy areas or near the edge of a lawn, or under a tree. Be sure to avoid roads, driveways, or high foot traffic areas. If you chose to set out feeders and water, please continue to provide food and water throughout the winter.
Investigate what birds are local to your area and which foods are most likely to attract certain species. Books and online resources are excellent starting points, but the best reference is often a local sanctuary or wildlife center. Ask regional bird lovers and nature experts what types of seed they supply and what birds are regular visitors to their feeders.
Here are a few of the most popular foods in our East TN backyard.
- Black Oil Sun Flower Seeds
- Niger Or Thistle
Provide some water.
- During the winter, birds can get their water requirements met through melting snow, but most enjoy access to fresh drinking water.
- Here are some quick tips for supplying a birdbath or water pan.
- Use a shallow pan or tray of water with pebbles or a rock to give the birds a perch and help them judge depth.
- The ground where you place the water supply should be level and near protective cover, such as an evergreen or shrub.
- Water should be about an inch to an inch and a half deep.
4. Be flexible with the timing of the count.
You can count birds for as little as 15 minutes, but it can be a long fifteen minutes if there isn’t a single bird sighting. Starting to count when you see bird activity start up in your yard can be significantly more rewarding than trying to adhere to an arbitrary time slot on the clock. It may also help to start an informal journal leading up to the counting days where you jot down times of increased bird activity in the yard. Knowing when birds are most active in your yard can help if you need to schedule observation times.
5. Learn to identify some common birds ahead of time.
We have a poster of common birds seen at the feeder hanging by our favorite bird watching window. Posters of common birds can be downloaded from Feeder Watch or purchased at many nature stores including Wild Birds Unlimited. Spending some time learning to identify the most common birds can make counting day more enjoyable.
Taking photographs of birds you aren’t able to readily identify is also a great option if you are new to bird watching. My kids are already very adept at taking photos using my phone and we can easily enlarge them to notice more detail about any birds they might see. We have been known to take our photos to the nature center and our local wild bird store, Wild Birds Unlimited to get help with identification.
6. Make the count a fun event with food or play.
Consider bird watching during a meal or snack to maintain enthusiasm if birds are slow to show. Hot cocoa and popcorn on a snowy or rainy day is a great way to increase our enjoyment while bird watching. Hiking, walking, or picnicking outdoors if you are blessed to live in a warm enough climate can also make bird watching and counting more enjoyable.
7. Consider a few bird themed projects.
Make a bird feeder.
There is an amazing array of bird feeders that can be made at home. Something as simple as a milk carton or jug can quickly be turned into a seed feeder. An orange can be sliced in half to create an oriole feeder. Families interested in wood working and building like mine, may well be able to design and build their own feeder out of natural materials. We recently created this woodpecker focused feeder out of a small log using only a power drill.
Our nuthatches and chickadee were also quite taken with it. The kids loved watching the birds visit a feeder they had helped create. Last year we created a feeder using our snowman, an activity we completed in combination with one of our favorite winter picture books, “Stranger in the Woods.”
Make window guards.
Reflections of branches or the sky on windowpanes can fool birds into thinking they can fly through that space. Window strike, injury caused by flying into a window is a common affliction that can severely harm or kill songbirds.
A simple and fun way to create window guards is to create paper snowflakes or other art and tape them to the window. Bright colors often work well, but try to avoid blue and green, which may be mistaken for water or sky and leaves.
8. Read some books about birds.
Taking some time to learn a little more about the natural history of birds can be a great way to increase awareness and interest in the birds you are counting. The local nature center is probably a great place to get recommendations on books focused on local species. For us the following books have been big hits with our family:
9. Create your online Great Backyard Bird Count account in advance.
Give yourself a head start logging bird counts by creating an online account ahead of time at birdcount.org. Familiarize yourself with the free GBBC/eBird account and/or app. Birdcount.org has several tools to help aid in identification and additional instructions for how to participate in the count. The GBBC Toolkit available on the lower right hand side of the web site provides instructions, a “how to” slideshow, birds lists, birding apps, and online guides for identification and help with tricky bird IDs.
10. Continue enjoying birds after the count.
Don’t stop with just one day or even the four days of the count (Friday, February 17th – Monday, February 20th). Not only is learning more about birds fun and educational, but it helps us all develop an awareness of the world around us. Birds are everywhere. They are the most common animal seen in day to day life. Being able to take time and appreciate them and know more about them can add quality to everyday life.
For more information on enjoying the Great Backyard Bird Count as a homeschooling family consider registering for one of the following free webinars being offered by the Cornell Lab or Ornithology:
- Great Backyard Bird Count Webinar – January 10, 2017 @ 6:00 pm – 7:00 pm
- Great Backyard Bird Count – January 17, 2017 @ 8:00 pm – 9:00 pm
- Valentine’s Day Traditions for the Homeschool Family - January 17, 2018
- 10 Quick Tips on How to Enjoy the Great Backyard Bird Count - January 26, 2017