“Who here knows how to count to five?” asks Gabi.
“I AM five!!” exclaims a little girl in the front row, nearly bouncing off her seat.
“Good!” our instructor, Gabi Hughes, chuckles, “then you can take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count.”
Watching a feeder at the Audubon’s Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve
On this bright Saturday morning, Taiji and I have ventured out to the Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve to learn what it takes to be a part of the Great Backyard Bird Count (the GBBC to those in the know). We’re sitting around a room of parents with their children and people of all ages, as Gabi, Environmental Educator with the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, lays out how to take part in the count. It’s a crash course in basic bird watching, and we are being upstaged by the younger ones as they shout out the names of birds on the pictures Gabi shows.
Learning about birds while eating worms (the gummy kind)
Personally, I’m embarrassed at how little I know about birding. Sure, I can impress you with my skills in pointing out a Blue Jay or Cardinal. I’ve seen ducks at Lake Carnegie. I even got the lens covers off of the binoculars by myself one time. But sitting next to Taiji, Naturalist Educator here at the Parks Conservancy, as he identifies birds based on their calls and beak length (“Downy… no, that’s a Hairy woodpecker!”), I don’t have a whole lot of confidence in my abilities to contribute to this great effort of citizen science.
In the two hours at the reserve, though, Gabi teaches us extreme novices (I’m talking about myself) how to identify a dozen of the most common birds in our area and the importance of these bi-annual counts: Bird populations are dynamic, and scientists would never be able to get the big picture on birds without this project. With the help of over 100,000 citizens since 1998, the count has made a huge impact on what we know about our avian friends, their habits, and our natural environment in general.
So, when you have even 15 minutes this weekend, I encourage you to get out to the parks — or even just watch from your kitchen — to take part in the GBBC. Here’s the skinny:
Learn a handful of area birds
Assuming that we all have a handle on Blue Jays, Cardinals, and Canada Geese, add a few common area birds to your repertoire. See the photos and information below from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to start. Click on the pictures to learn more:
These cuties have short, conical bills; small heads; long wings; and notched tails. Males are bright yellow with black forehead/wings and white patches above and beneath the tail. Females are duller yellow beneath, olive above. In winter they’re drab, unstreaked brown, with blackish wings and two pale wingbars. These finches are active and acrobatic.
House Sparrows are pudgy; full in the chest; large, rounded head; and stout bill. Male House Sparrows are brightly colored with gray heads, white cheeks, a black bib, and rufous neck and may be duller in cities. Females are a plain buffy-brown overall with dingy gray-brown underparts. Their backs are noticeably striped with buff, black, and brown. House Sparrows are noisy!
Medium-sized; dark gray or brown colored; pink billed; rounded head; short, stout bill; and a long, conspicuous tail. Their white outer tail feathers periodically flash open, particularly in flight. Dark-eyed Juncos are birds of the ground.
Pointed crest (like a mohawk!); soft silvery gray above and white below; rusty or peach-colored wash down the flanks; and a black patch just under the bill. Their signature stout bill identifies them even in silhouette. Tufted Titmice are acrobatic foragers. Their flight tends to be fluttery but level.
Plump-bodied; short legs; small bill; and a head that looks particularly small compared to the body. The long, pointed tail is unique among North American doves. They match their open-country surroundings and are delicate brown to buffy-tan overall, with black spots on the wings and black-bordered white tips to the tail feathers. Powerful wingbeats, sometimes making sudden ascents, descents, and dodges.
Small but chunky; round body; long tail that cocks upward; large head with very little neck; and a distinctive long, slender and downcurved bill. Both males and females are a bright, unpatterned reddish-brown above and warm buffy-orange below, with a long white eyebrow stripe. The tail is cocked upward while foraging and held down when singing.
Learn to count
First, create a free account. Next, get the details on the count at the Great Backyard Bird Count site. When you’re familiar with how to count and record your data, you can submit it on that site. (This is also a wonderful resource for birding in general.)
Keep being a citizen scientist
If, like me, you’re still easing into this citizen scientist thing, I encourage you to take advantage of great local organizations that can help you along the way. This Saturday, visit Beechwood Farms for your very own tour and count with the Audubon Society or one of their upcoming tours or trainings. And keep on broadening your skills with even more citizen scientist trainings around the city.
See you out for the count!
Lauryn Stalter for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, striving to become the next great birder.