By Alexandria Simpson

What if it was possible to take a real-time snapshot of the US and Canada showing where the birds are? That’s just what the Great Backyard Bird Count’s (GBBC) does, according to their website. The Great Backyard Bird Count is led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, with Canadian partner Bird Studies Canada and sponsorship from Wild Birds Unlimited. 2012 marks the 15th year of this citizen scientist count, which takes place February 17th—20th (Friday through Monday).

It is free and fun. Even if you only have 15 minutes on one of the days in your own yard, you can participate. Basically you count birds, and submit your checklist online on the GBBC website. There is a photo contest for photos taken during the GBBC, so don’t forget your camera, especially if you find a rarity. Go to to register and get more details.

You can choose a stationary count or a traveling count. A stationary count is performed in one place, like your yard, and you report the highest number of each species you counted in one group. In a traveling count you bird a larger area and note all the birds you see as you go along.

Scientists use the information from the GBBC and other citizen scientist projects to monitor winter bird populations and answer questions such as:

  • “How will this winter's snow and cold temperatures influence bird populations?”
  • “Where are winter finches and other ‘irruptive’ species that appear in large numbers during some years but not others?”
  • “How will the timing of birds’ migrations compare with past years?”
  • “What kinds of differences in bird diversity are apparent in cities versus suburban, rural, and natural areas?”

During the 2011 GBBC my family and I found an early migrant, a light-morph Swainson’s Hawk, the only one recorded in Texas. Just a few days before, a huge cold front and storm hit Mexico, so we guessed it just kept flying ahead of the front. I had to provide more details to a GBBC representative. I told her that I eliminated the light-morph Ferruginous Hawk because the bird I saw was darker, more slender, had an almost completely white belly, and a “hood”. Light-morph “Harlan’s” Red-tailed Hawk was also eliminated because they are found about 100 miles north of my area, and it wasn’t bulky like a Red-tail.

Let’s show the birding world how much young birders can do! Put your skills to the test in the 15th annual Great Backyard Bird Count. The GBBC is a great reason to go birding, no matter the weather. You never know what you might spot. See what other people around the country are spotting and how many. You can also compare this year’s numbers with last year’s. 

Don’t forget to return to this post and record your totals. Who can find the most species? I’m in. Are you?

AlexandriaAbout the author: Alexandria Simpson is an avid, fifteen-year-old birder from Santa Anna, Texas. While she wishes she could say she has been birding all of her life, instead she has spent the last four years making up for lost time. She wants to become an ornithologist and someday read scientific papers without falling asleep. Her photography, illustrations, and writings have won awards at local, state, and national levels. She currently serves as one of the student blog editors for The Eyrie.