Thumbnail image: Brad Imhoff | Macaulay Library

[Chelsea Benson] All right, everyone. Welcome to today’s webinar from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We are so excited that you’re joining us here today. Feel free to pop in the chat and let us know where you’re tuning in from. My name’s Chelsea. I’m going to be facilitating today’s conversation. The Great Backyard Bird Count is a collaborative effort from the Cornell Lab Birds Canada and the National Audubon Society. Wild Birds Unlimited is also a founding sponsor.

We’re excited to have three project coordinators joining us. I’ll introduce our guests after a few announcements. Today’s webinar is hosted from Ithaca, New York. And I want to read a statement acknowledging the Indigenous people as the original inhabitants of this area. Cornell University is located on the traditional homelands of the Gayogoho:no, the Cayuga Nation.

The Gayogoho:no are members of the Oneida Soni Confederacy, an alliance of six sovereign nations with a historic and contemporary presence on this land. The Confederacy precedes the establishment of Cornell University, New York State, and the United States of America. We acknowledge the painful history of the Gayogoho:no dispossession and honor the ongoing connection of Gayogoho:no people, past and present, to these lands and waters.

We have a couple of tech notes for our audiences on Zoom and YouTube. Closed captioning is available on Zoom. And if you’d like to turn on the captions, please click the captions button at the bottom of the screen. And if you don’t see a captions button. Click the three dots that say more. For those watching on YouTube, click the CC button at the bottom of your video to turn on the captions. To ask our panel questions because this is a Q&A, for those of you on Zoom, click that Q&A button, and type in your question.

Please only use the Zoom chat for technical support. We won’t be monitoring that area for questions. And for those of you on YouTube, welcome. We’re so excited that you’ve joined us. If you would like to ask the panel a question, you’ll need to subscribe to the Cornell labs YouTube channel. Subscribing helps us keep spam out of the chat. Click that Subscribe button, which is under the video. And if you’re not logged in with a Google account, you’ll be prompted to sign in first.

I have a lot of colleagues helping to answer questions and share information in the chats on both Zoom and YouTube. I’m incredibly thankful for their help today. All right, that was a lot of announcements. Let’s get started.

With us today, we have three Great Backyard Bird Count project leaders. Joining us today, we have Kathy Dale from Audubon. Welcome, Kathy We have Kerrie Wilcox with Birds Canada. Hey, Kerrie. Good to see you again. I’m also joined by Becca Rodomsky-Bish from the Cornell Lab. Hey, Becca.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Hey, great to see everybody. Thank you all. And as the webinar progresses, we’re going to be joined by additional staff from these three organizations and also from Bird Count India. So we have a great group of people jumping in and out of today’s webinar to help answer your questions about the Great Backyard Bird Count.

[Chelsea Benson] So first off, I want to start with Becca, can you give us a big picture of what is the Great Backyard Bird Count? Which, throughout the webinar, we’ll refer to as the GBBC. So that’s what we mean when we say GBBC, it’s the Great Backyard Bird Count. So Becca, if you could just lead us in, what is it? When is it? And is it something that you should only do in your backyard, or can you do it anywhere?

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Sure. Thank you, everybody, for being here today. It is so wonderful to see such a big audience. So the GBBC is in its 26th year. This is our 26th year. It’s been going on for a very long time. It always runs for four days in February. And this year, it is running February 17th through the 20th, and this is really just a wonderful opportunity for people who love birds and nature to come together literally from around the world to share what birds they’re seeing.

We only ask for 15 minutes of your time at the minimum. If you want to spend an hour watching, if you want to watch every day for more than an hour. That is wonderful. All we ask for is 15 minutes over those four days to watch, and count, and share the birds that you are seeing in and around you. And it’s not just for those that you see. Some of us are hearing birds. So we also welcome people who are recording bird sounds and hearing birds to tell us what birds they’re hearing and seeing.

And this is just a wonderful event, birds anywhere. You don’t need to be in your backyard. You could be in your front yard. You could be at your church. You could be at a school. You could be at a local park. You could be out on a walk. Anywhere there are birds, which is pretty much everywhere, we want to come together and celebrate them.

[Chelsea Benson] Awesome. I’m super excited. It’s one of my favorite weekends of the year to get out there and just see what’s happening around where I live. So, Kathy, now that we know what it is, and what’s happening, how do people report the birds that they see? Could you give us a basic overview of how to enter our accounts?

[Kathy Dale] Sure, I’d be happy to. So when you participate, you can enter your bird sightings through the eBird Mobile app, or the Merlin Bird ID app, or the eBird website. Becca is showing that here. You can enter your bird sightings through the eBird Mobile app while you’re out on the field. For those of you returning to the count, you’re familiar with the fact that the eBird Mobile app does record using GPS. So it quickly identifies where you are where you’re birding, which is convenient.

If you prefer to keep track of your bird observations using paper. You’re welcome to do that. We provide a way for you to download a checklist of birds that are likely to be seen in your area, shown here on the screen. It’s a printable checklist you can take it out with you into the field, fill it out. And then what you need to do is just come back to the GBBC website or the eBird website and enter your data on your home computer.

Lots of step by step materials on which tools are available and how you go about using each tool. And that’ll be covered a little more later on in our webinar. So we give a lot of guidance on the website. And to motivate everyone, we are giving away a pair of Zeiss binoculars to one random participant who submits one or more sightings using Merlin or a 15-minute count over eBird over the four days. So I hope that piques your interest and everybody takes advantage of that.

[Chelsea Benson] So there’s no official registration process. You count your birds, and you go to those apps or websites that you showed and enter your accounts there. It’s super helpful. Thank you so much. Kerrie, another question, what birds should people count? Can they count birds that fly overhead? Birds that they hear? You have any insights to that.

[Kerrie Wilcox] That’s a great question. We want you to count every bird you see and hear during your counting session. So that includes a flock of geese that are flying overhead, or if you hear a black cat chickadee, but don’t see it, we want you to count that too. So if you’re going for just a short walk for the Great Backyard Bird Count and you see three chickadees at the start of your walk, count that. And then you see five a little later, it’s a running tally. So now you have eight chickadees, and we want you to do that for every species that you see during your count, and then enter your checklist for each location you do a count. And each time you go out.

[Chelsea Benson] Sorry, I was going to say you have a lovely little demo of how to count. So let me pull that up, right?

[Kerrie Wilcox] Yes. So one of the great things about doing a count for the Great Backyard Bird Count is you don’t even have to go outside if it’s freezing cold. So if you want to do a feeder count, and just watch the birds out your window. We have a slightly different protocol to follow. We want you to record the highest of each species that you see at a single time at your feeder. So if you glance out your window when you’re doing your count, and you see one pine siskin like in this slide. And then later you look out and there are six, you record six. So the highest that you saw at a single time at your feeder was six.

And we want you to do that for each of the species that are visiting your feeders, and any birds that fly over your feeders during the count, we want you to count that too. And if you see, clearly different individuals like a male Cardinal and a female Cardinals, these are birds that you can tell apart the males and females. We want you to record those as well. So just remember, you can do a count in the morning while you’re having your coffee and enter that checklist, and then later in the afternoon, if you want to do another count while you’re having your lunch, enter a new checklist for the birds at your feeder.

[Chelsea Benson] Awesome, thank you, that was so helpful. We are going to spend the remainder of our webinar answering a lot of questions. I see that the YouTube chat and the Zoom Q&A are really busy. So some questions were submitted in advance, and like I said, some are being submitted now. So the next panel that we’re going to bring on, I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re going to explore different themes with panels of experts from Audubon Birds Canada, Bird Count India and the Lab of Ornithology.

Our first panel is from Audubon, and for this panel we’re going to continue speaking with Kathy Dale. And Kathy is going to be joined by Chad Witko. So Chad, if you want to hop on. Chad is the senior coordinator of Avian biology with the National Audubon Society. And they’re going to be taking your questions about identifying and counting birds. So if you have questions about identifying and counting birds, I’d love for you to top those into the Q&A, in the chat. So welcome, Kathy and Chad.

One of the questions, I got submitted to me via the forms that people were wondering. I’m new to birding. So they’re nervous, they’re worried that they’re going to misidentify birds, and wondering, even if they’re new and still learning, is it OK to participate or should I participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count?

[Chad Witko] I’ll take that, Chelsea, that’s a great question. And I would say, absolutely, if you are a beginner, you should definitely feel encouraged to join our Great Backyard Bird Count efforts. Now, it’s first, one of the important things to know is that the power, the scientific power of the Great Backyard Bird Count really comes from the volume of data submitted so every count matters, the more data we get in, the more powerful the analyzes and sciences on the back side of these counts.

Also, feel confident that as beginning birders, most beginning birders know more about local birds than they might realize, especially, the backyard birds that they’re feeding perhaps for a long time. And for what you don’t know, there’s a lot of tools out there that really help with your identification process, whether it be field guides, online resources and of course, apps like Audubon’s field guide or Maryland bird ID. There’s no shortage of resources out there to help people identify the birds.

And if you feel stuck after that, it’s OK sometimes to leave the birds unidentified. Even the best birders aren’t able to identify every bird that they see, do your best and we’re going to be happy to take that data.

[Chelsea Benson] Absolutely, we want as many people to participate as possible. And if you’re struggling to identify a bird, that’s fine, we’ve all been there, right. And so we consult, field guides and apps from the lab or from Audubon has some good apps too so feel free to just lean on resources to figure out what that bird is. Now, Kathy, our next question is, what happens if I just cannot identify a bird? What should we do? They want to potentially add it to the count, it’s a bird but don’t know what to do with that. What do you suggest?

[Kathy Dale] Yeah, it’s really just mostly important that you report the birds you can identify. If there’s a bird that you can’t completely identify but you may be able to determine it’s a type of hawk or a duck. For instance, there is a way to record a hawk sp., which is a non-specific form of a hawk. So it would be in the group of Hawks but not identified to species. So there are similar groupings under sparrows and other groups of birds. So you’re welcome to report it if that much about the bird. But if you really can’t determine what the bird is, it’s also fine to just not record it at all. It’s important to be really honest about what you feel confident in reporting.

Also, there is a question at the end of a checklist when you’re in e-bird and you’re submitting a checklist, there’s a question that asks you, are you reporting all the species that you’re able to identify? And it’s an important question because really the eBird folks want to know, are you spending, are you focusing on birding? Number one. And are you only reporting things you are confident in identifying? And so it’s fine that you’re not required to be able to identify all birds, there’s no requirement there, just that you’re telling us about the birds that about. So perfectly welcome to report what you know.

[Chelsea Benson] Awesome, that’s really helpful. Chad, I know that people were really kind of struggling with all those little brown birds, they all look so similar. And when I’m talking about the little brown birds, I’m thinking primarily about North American species. I know, our audience here is international today, but there’s just so many tiny little brown birds, perhaps at your feeder or even flitting around the bushes if you’re out for a walk in the park. Could you kind of give us a little bit of a clue about how we might go about identifying some of those little birds?

[Chad Witko] Yeah, absolutely, I’ll share my screen. Yeah, so little brown birds, a little brown jobs as some people refer to these small brown birds across the world can be very challenging. Here, I’m just kind of focusing on identifying and counting sparrows as just kind of a quick overview. Of course, all these things you can go into a deep dive and really get into the weeds with some of these things. But some of the generalities here I think are going to be good for people wanting to identify sparrows in their backyard which can be quite common across North America as well as other types of birds that they might encounter.

The first thing to recognize is sparrows are hard, they’re hard to identify. And there’s other groups of difficult to identify birds. Often, we see little brown birds and we just think that it’s kind of a similar pattern across all of them, they’re brown, they’re small, they’re streaked, what do I do with that? But with some patients, we can realize that there’s actually a diversity of subtle plumage differences and behaviors that these birds have or exhibit that can help us come down with a correct identification. If we start to kind of take it slow and key in on a few things.

So first, start off with size and shape, is it a small bird, is it a large bird, and this includes even for the sparrows, it’s a larger or small sparrow? What about color patterns? Some of these birds that you see on the screen have big, bold color patterns like the white-throated sparrow? Is there anything like that, does it have any white in the outer tail feathers like dark-eyed junco? What about behavior? Is it kind of going through the weeds or is it out in the open, what habitats are you viewing it in. And of course, what’s the range of these birds that you’re seeing. So of course, you know your location, and looking through resources, you can find out what’s possible in your area.

So as you’re looking through these birds in front of you, just ask questions, what are you seeing? Focus on a few things and use these resources to kind of work towards an identification. Of course, as we said already, if you can’t identify the bird as a species, that’s OK, identify what you feel confident in and report that. And of course, just be patient. And when you’re counting these birds, they can be kind of difficult often in and out of habitat, deep into bushes sometimes, be patient with them and count a conservative number. And if you’re at one location, report the maximum number for each species that you’re seeing.

[Chelsea Benson] Excellent, thanks Chad. That’s really helpful, and it’s so nice to be able to see all the species like next to each other because you can when they’re nice and still in a picture, you can start to pick out all the little differences between the different species, very helpful. And I know that I can see in the Q&A in the chat, questions about birds that are just like look really similar. and also are tricky to ID like hairy woodpeckers and downy woodpeckers. Again, we’re talking about North American species here. Like a house finch versus a purple finch, and my colleagues in the chat, there’s a really wonderful tool from Project FeederWatch, which is one of the Cornell Lab programs, and it’s all about tricky IDs. And they’re going to drop that in the chat. So feel free to use that tool to kind of help you distinguish between some of those species that look quite similar.

Now, that we’ve kind of figured out some of the trickier birds. Kathy, people are just wondering, how do I figure out what’s even common in my area? Do you have any suggestions about how people can find some of the Earth, no, just kind of get it like maybe they want to look the day before like what am I going to expect to see in the next couple of days?

[Kathy Dale] Yeah, so there are a number of resources on the GBBC website. We mentioned this checklist, printable checklist so that’s one way where you can go find what are the birds most likely to be near you. That’s really helpful for our global audience. EBird itself, is also really useful for finding out what birds have been recently reported near you. So that’s a global resource as well. And then Audubon’s mobile app, our bird ID app has a tool that allows you to query, identify a bird feature there that it’ll tell you the most likely birds based on color and time of year so that’s free for those in North America. And then Birds Canada also has a new tool, a really cool photo tool, photo ID guide on their website at birds Canada’s bird sky bird guide. So a number of tools available and there may be additional tools available in areas near you if you’re outside of North America.

[Chelsea Benson] Wonderful, yeah, sometimes it just pays to kind of take time flipping through, some apps and some field guides and some of those websites, just to familiarize yourself with what to expect while you’re out counting this weekend. So we’re going to shift and we’re going to talk about how to count birds and one of the questions that people were really asking is what is the best time of day to go out and look for birds? Chad, I feel like you have some suggestions.

[Chad Witko] Yeah, kind of an easy answer is for something like this the best time to count is whenever you can get out and do the count, right. So we’re happy to take the 15 minutes minimum that you can put in towards this count, whenever, that time is available for you. However, if you have time and flexibility in your schedule. I think the best times a day to really focus in on are going to be the early morning and the late afternoon periods of the day.

Now, if we think about the biology of birds. It makes sense that birds are most active first thing in the morning, these birds are spending a long night sometimes very cold and parts of the world, particularly thinking about North America. And when the sun comes up, they’re going to be ready to start eating, drinking being active, get their metabolism going, so it’s no surprise that the first part of the day is often when birds are most active. So when they’re most active, they’re going to be more visible, and you’re going to have better luck finding and counting birds near you.

[Chelsea Benson] Awesome, and I know this is really tricky for me, people are wondering if you see a flock of birds, a big unruly flock of birds either flying overhead or perhaps they are in the water, what’s the best way, Kathy, to kind of try to get a count of a group that large?

[Kathy Dale] Yeah, it can be a challenge but the way I’ve learned and I’ve heard this from others as well is that you basically, want to divide up a large block into units. And I literally use my hand and I go like this, here’s a square, and count within that unit, you may count 50 snow geese, and then you estimate how many blocks of that size fit into the field that you’re observing, and then you multiply and you come up with a pretty educated guess.

You can also ask your birding partner to do the same thing and you can compare. The GBBC website and eBird also have some nice resources. There’s a bird counting 101 that’s available to help people learn how to do this. And also last year, when we did this Great Backyard Bird Count webinar, we actually did an exercise together, the whole audience, we did a visual where we had a practice session on how to count a flock. So I would refer you back to that webinar, it’s really helpful to actually work through it with someone, and you can do that using the webinar recording.

[Chelsea Benson] And it’s fine, it takes practice, right. We’ve all been out there and it’s just something that you need take a few times and practice and try to figure it out, and like Kathy suggested, even just looking at a photo and practicing ahead of time is a good suggestion. So some people are wondering, Chad, can they count from multiple locations or is it recommended that they stay at the same spot for their counts throughout the weekend?

[Chad Witko] Yeah, as far as where they do their counts, you can absolutely do counts for multiple locations. There’s also value in doing counts from a single location. So I think it’s important to understand that there’s value to doing either of those options. So if you’re counting from multiple times from a single location, you’re helping to paint kind of a better picture of what is present at that site and in what numbers. If you think about our normal birding efforts when we go outside, we don’t always see and hear everything that’s present in a single window, particularly, if it’s only 15 minutes. And so doing multiple counts at one place has a lot of value.

Particularly if it’s a place like your backyard, that’s maybe not getting a lot of birding coverage thinking against the hot spot where there might be tons of other birders coming in and seeing a lot of activity from birders. But if you go out to multiple sites, you’re kind of filling, you’re helping to fill in the gaps spatially, and both of those are really valuable. I think the thing to remember and to decide for yourself, is where can I go and where can I go and give my best counts while I’m there. Where can I be comfortable and do my best job? And that’s really just the best place for you to be. So either one is really great. If you want to do multiple counts from one site, say, your backyard or to cover a lot of places over the four days, either have value.

[Chelsea Benson] It’s great. Kathy, I’m going to switch gears a little bit because I see our audiences really wanting to know why are we doing the count in February as opposed to a spring count when we might get some migratory species, why February for the GBBC?

[Kathy Dale] Yeah, so originally, so the GBBC started in the US, grew to become North America continent and then grew global from there. But originally, the thinking is that in late winter, it’s important to get a snapshot of where the birds are, and these data become very important and magnified when we combine a late winter snapshot in North America with the early winter snapshot of the Christmas Bird Count data which has been going on for 123 years.

And there’s also a very well known breeding bird survey that goes on in North America that so all three of these data sets in addition to eBird help us fill in the whole picture of what birds are doing. So that that’s the original thinking. Of course, it’s winter here in North America. But it is not winter in many of the other places that contribute to the Great Backyard Bird Count so that allows us to get a really interesting perspective on what’s going on this time of year around the globe.

[Chelsea Benson] Yeah, it’s good just to have these accounts kind of scattered throughout the year, and February maybe was that great open window when we could take that survey and see what’s out there. I’m going to finish with one more question, Kathy and Chad. Wondering about, is it should I be even counting like boring non-native species, like for example like a boring species that people might not be excited about is house sparrows or on the flip side, is it OK to count exotic birds like parakeets, somebody wrote in, I live in Southern Florida, we have a lot of exotic birds, should I include those in the count?

[Chad Witko] Yeah, I’ll take that, Chelsea. Yeah, so I’ll break it into two parts because there’s two kind of groups of birds there but the answer for both is yes, by all means, count these birds. So for non native established species like house sparrows and European starlings, counting their numbers is just as important as it is counting our native species.

Now, these birds are readily seen and fairly numerous in most places, and it’s important to realize that these birds just like our native birds are barometers for what’s happening in our environment. So by capturing these data, we have a better sense of what’s happening in our environment not only for them but also for our native species. And it’s important to realize that some of these species are declining across portions of their native range. So it helps paint a better picture of what’s happening to these species as a whole.

Now, for the exotic birds thinking about things that aren’t really fully established yet, it is also important to count these birds. EBird has a stat where they say as of August of last year, nearly 5% of all observations in the platform include records of exotic species. So they’re starting to become a significant portion of our world’s fauna, and if we study these birds and how they’re interacting with our ecosystems, we’re learning a lot about conservation management science along the way.

And it’s important to realize that some of these birds can change their numbers at much faster rates than our native species, and it’s really great to see how these birds might be impacting the native fauna, and understand their population changes over time are these birds growing to establish populations or perhaps maybe they’re winking out over time. So understanding their numbers through these types of counts, it’s really important in the same way that it would be for our native species.

[Chelsea Benson] Excellent, thank you so much Chad and Kathy. We’re going to shift gears and turn to our next panel. I’d like to welcome from Birds Canada, we’re going to be joined by the Great Backyard Bird Count project leader Kerrie Wilcox, who we saw earlier, and Kerrie is joined by Jody Allair. Hi Jody. Jody is the Director of Community Engagement with Birds Canada, and Jody and Kerrie are going to be taking your questions about feeding birds, birds at feeders so feeder birds. And how groups can participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count? And I had turned Kerrie’s video off a minute ago. So let me see if I can bring her back on, let’s see. Let me find her, here. There we go. All right, hopefully that will allow Kerrie to turn her video back on, sorry about that, Kerrie.

So we’re going to start with thinking about feeder birds and feeding birds, Kerrie in addition to helping with the Great Backyard Bird Count and being one of the project leaders with that is also a project leader with FeederWatch which is a collaborative project between the Cornell Lab and Birds Canada. So Kerrie people are wondering about keeping their feeders safe for birds, I see a lot of questions, people are concerned about disease at feeders, and is it OK to feed birds. So I’d love for you to share your expertise about keeping feeders safe.

[Kerrie Wilcox] Sure, that’s a great question. Thank you. Well, setting up a feed or a birdbath makes life easier for birds in winter, and it also makes our life more enjoyable. So if we’re bringing birds into our backyard, we need to keep them safe. And birds can become sick from leftover bits of hole and seed that become moldy on the ground or have droppings in them. So we need to clean our feeders regularly.

And by cleaning, I mean, take them down, scrub them, use a mild bleach solution that’s one part bleach and 9 parts water, and solve for about 10 minutes, and then fully dry them before refilling them and putting them back up. And then raking all of the leftover seeds that are underneath your feeder and anything that is laying around. So that we’re removing any risk of, any risk of spread and make sure you dispose of those seeds properly as well.

If you see a sick bird at your feeder, so by sick, I mean, symptoms like crusty eyes or growths on their face or their feet or they’re acting lethargic or they’re puffed up and easily approachable, those are all signs of disease. So if you see a bird that appears sick at your feeders, we want you to take them down for a couple of weeks and that’ll allow the birds to disperse, and they’re not going to be spreading it at your feeders. So there’s some more things you can do to keep birds safe as well if you’re bringing them into your backyard, that’s keep your cats indoors because cats kill millions of birds each year.

And you need to break up window reflections to prevent windows strikes, where birds see windows as just and if they see reflections of plants in them, they’re thinking it’s just a clear runway to fly right through. So you need to break up window reflections. And we have lots of information on how to do that on the bird Canada website. Just go to BirdsCanada.org/guide, and Audubon and Cornell also have lots of web information on their website for how to prevent window strikes as well.

[Chelsea Benson] Right, yeah. We just installed a ton of preventative like on our building at the Lab of Ornithology, and they’ve been very effective so far. So Yeah just adding some things to break up the reflection can be really important to prevent window strikes. I do see questions avian flu, and whether it is OK at all to we just talk about keep feeders safe but can we even put them up and is avian flu still a concern?

[Kerrie Wilcox] Well, the use of bird feeders is unlikely to spread the avian influenza virus. And the chance of an outbreak being caused by wild birds that frequent feeders is considered very low right now. However, if you feed birds and you live near poultry or poultry have access to your feeders, you should not put out feeders. And we also recommend that you follow your local guidance or the guidelines from your country.

[Chelsea Benson] Right, and as I mentioned when I introduced you as the project leader for FeederWatch, some people are our audience participate in FeederWatch so that’s really exciting and we’re so glad that you’re joining us, they’re wondering what’s the difference between the Great Backyard Bird Count and FeederWatch, and could they submit their counts for FeederWatch to the Great Backyard Bird Count? So I guess, you could just kind of explain how GBBC is different, that would be really great.

[Kerrie Wilcox] Well, the main difference between doing a Great Backyard Bird Count feeder count is that it’s for a single count period, whereas FeederWatch is over a two day period, and it’s summarized at the end of the two days. So for the Great Backyard Bird Count we want you to do a separate count for each time that you watch your feeders. So if you do a count in the morning, enter a checklist for that, do one in the afternoon. So you could submit lots of counts over the four days.

And there’s some other differences as well, you’re still recording the highest number each species that you see. But we want you to include birds that you can tell males and females apart separately, we want you to add those together, they don’t have to be seen at the same time. And you can count flyovers as well for the Great Backyard Bird Count, and you can go out and do a count, a hike, you can do a count and lots of different locations, you don’t have to just do it at your feeder.

[Chelsea Benson] Right, there’s a little more flexibility. And there are different protocols, right. It’s different research projects, different protocols for counting, we encourage you to participate in both. But just be aware of the differences between the two. And I see that my colleagues are already dropping information about how to count differences.

[Kerrie Wilcox] The data is used to answer different research questions and it’s pooled together to come up with trend analysis. So be awesome if you can enter your count for both this week.

[Chelsea Benson] I want to ask you one burning question from the audience, Kerrie, as our feeder bird expert, what’s the best type of seed for birds? If you’re only going to buy one seed to put out, what do you recommend?

[Kerrie Wilcox] Well, black oil sunflower is the best all around seed. It has a high meat to shell ratio, and it has a really high fat content. So it’s giving birds lots of energy and even small birds can crack, it’s got a fairly thin shell. So small birds can eat it too. So it’s a great all around for all types of birds.

[Chelsea Benson] Awesome, I love that and I buy that too, it’s just so simple, right. So Jody, there’s a lot of groups that are participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count, and they’re asking a lot of questions, how do groups submit counts? If let’s say, a classroom is participating, should each student submit a checklist, a bird scene or is it one single checklist, what do you recommend?

[Jody Allair] Yeah, so there are different ways to do this, and I have to say, doing the Great Backyard Bird Count with the group is I don’t know, I think a lot more fun than just going out by yourself. And we have a lot of good memories when we were running our school programs at

Birds Canada office, and we would take the local school kids out to do the Great Backyard Bird Count. And they were a lot of fun, and the kids really, really like this program. So I highly encourage people to take advantage of this event to take students out because it is pretty fun. And the fact, it’s part of a worldwide initiative, I think, it really has that extra umph than just a typical little field trip to your local green space.

In terms of entering the data, I think the easiest way to do it is to not have everyone enter individual lists. And especially, with a large group like some people, this might be their first time, maybe they’re new to birding. So I would strongly encourage that the leader, whether you’re a teacher or whether you work for a municipal park program and you’re taking a bird group out, I would recommend just having one checklist and there could be your own checklist or if you have an account with your organization, it could be through that, do one checklist and then I would share that checklist on eBird with all the participants that either have an eBird account or you can show them how to sign up to get an eBird account, and then everyone can have a copy of that list when you’re out birding.

You could also take that to the next level as well, you can, if you’re with a group and you’re birding multiple sites through like a morning and you’re going to all the really great birding spots, then another thing you could do is create a trip report through eBird. And I think there’s going to be a link in the chat if you want to learn a bit more on how to do a trip report. But it’s really simple, in your eBird account, you go to my eBird, you’ll see a section on the left that says trip reports, you select that.

And all you do is create a name, select all the checklists that were part of your field trip and then you just add the contact information of all the people and everyone gets a copy of that list in the trip report. You can even write a description, everyone could upload their photos. So it’s a really nice kind of scrapbook of your birding data. It’s a really nice fun thing to do on a Great Backyard Bird Count.

[Chelsea Benson] And it’s great as you can be able to go back and look like what happened last year, where did we go, what did we see, who participated? It almost becomes like a journal, not just a checklist, right.

[Jody Allair] Absolutely, yeah, it tells a story, right, that people remember, yeah.

[Chelsea Benson] You kind of express how fun it is to do these events with groups. And I know a lot of people wrote in about two different topics, one, how to get more people involved in the Great Backyard Bird Count? And then also, if you could provide any tips for birding or for doing this event with kids?

[Jody Allair] Yeah, absolutely. So to get more people involved, there’s several different things you can do in your community, you could volunteer to lead a hike and you could put a poster up at the library or if your town has a Facebook group for the town or something, you could put in that, you could promote the event and you could offer it to lead a hike, I think, that’s a great thing to do. Telling your neighbors about it, works really well. And slowly all your neighbors become birders, which is pretty hilarious.

And so just getting the word out, promoting it on social media. And if you’re actually out participating and you’re using social media Instagram or whatever and you post a picture, put a link in and talk about your day that you went out and saw these birds and it was part of this global event. And then maybe you might have some friends and family that might want to follow up. But I find that kind of word of mouth is a really great way, really great way to promote as much as you can.

Birding with kids obviously, is always a great idea. And the Great Backyard Bird Count is a perfect excuse to take it whether it’s your own kids or whether you’re a teacher with students. Absolutely, this is one of the best sort of entry level programs to get people into birding. You know, and frankly, it doesn’t really matter the data is great for sure. But like really, when you’re with a group of kids in that, it’s just getting outside having an excuse to get outside and count and ID things, doesn’t matter if you can’t identify all the birds, it’s really just the process.

And if you have really, really young kids, you could tie it in with a craft, they could maybe make their own binoculars, maybe they don’t necessarily have to work, it doesn’t really matter right and with Merlin Bird ID going forward, you can go out and you could show them, you could all take like a listening exercise, listen to the white-breasted nuthatches and chickadees were just singing like crazy in my neighborhood right now and just even teaching a few songs as part of this actually could go a long way. So definitely, don’t be scared of not being an expert enough to take kids out, go outside with young people and experience birds. And I think it’s a great time to do it.

[Chelsea Benson] I see some people are like, well, what happens if I don’t have binoculars, like are binoculars necessary for this?

[Jody Allair] Nope, nope, don’t need binoculars, don’t need anything, just go outside, just go outside and see what you can see and listen to what you can listen to. And there’s great, there’s great free apps and there’s great resources that have already been mentioned here to get you more familiar with it. If you have a pair of binoculars, great and share them around. But no, you don’t need any of that. So don’t let that limit you from getting outside and exploring birds.

[Chelsea Benson] Absolutely, one last question from our Birds Canada team here. People are wondering, you know, we talked about people getting excited and generating interest. So maybe this will spark more Canadians to participate, could you share what areas in Canada had the most participation in the Great Backyard Bird Count last year?

[Jody Allair] Yeah, for sure, so Canada, even though our population is small, we hit way above our weight in terms of participation in these types of events and have the highest per capita participation in the Great Backyard Bird Count. Canadians love participating in these events. We had 34,000 checklists submitted across Canada last year. Ontario, which has a huge and amazing birding community. Ontario had over 13,000 of those checklists just in Ontario.

But if you get down to specific urban areas in Canada, I really love this top two. Metro Vancouver sort of led the way with over 1,400 checklists, and number two was Ottawa with just over 1,400 as well, which is really great. So those are sort of the big areas. But if you look at numbers rate across the country, it is well represented, Canada’s well represented in terms of participation, which is amazing.

[Chelsea Benson] Wonderful, I hope that inspires the Canadians and our audience to get out there and get some more checklists submitted for the upcoming count. Thank you Jody and Kerrie for joining us and talking to us about getting groups involved, in counting feeder birds, it was really helpful. All right, we have one. Yeah, thank you. We have one final panel that’s joining us from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Count India. We’re going to welcome back the Great Backyard Bird Count project leader Becca Rodomsky-Bish. And joining Becca, we have Alli Smith. Alli is the Merlin project coordinator at the lab. And we have Ashwin Viswanathan of Bird Count India. So welcome to all of you.

So we had lots and lots of questions about using eBird and Merlin Bird ID for the Great Backyard Bird Count. So we’re going to kind of dive into that. And then we’re also going to hear about how Bird Count India has really kind of grown participation in this weekend event pretty drastically, dramatically over the last few years. So we’re excited to kind of get some tips for some inspiring other people to get out and count this weekend.

So we’ve been talking a lot about Merlin and eBird but we haven’t really gotten into the nitty gritty about how people actually submit their count. So Alli, could you kind of start us off and talk about the apps and how people can use them this weekend?

[Alli Smith] Yes, absolutely. So I have a few slides that I want to share with you here. So if we can all see them. So for the count, you can participate by submitting sightings in either Merlin or eBird whichever is best for you, whichever you feel more comfortable using. There is a difference between the two apps. So Merlin is a really great visual field guide and an excellent way to learn about the birds around you, and has identification tools to help you identify birds. And these tools can be used anywhere in the world, which is really cool.

With Merlin, you can submit one bird at a time, and we recommend using Merlin if you’re new to bird watching or new to identifying birds in general. EBird is a little different in that it’s a way for you to keep a detailed checklist of what you see while you’re birding including the number of each species that you see. So if you are already using eBird and comfortable using that, we recommend sticking with that and using that one for the count.

I do want to share a little bit more about how to use Merlin because this is a really exciting tool that’s great for beginner birdwatchers or people that are more experienced and want another tool to help them when they’re out birding. So the first step to using Merlin is to download Merlin. So in the App Store on your iPhone or your iPad or in the Play Store on your Android phone or tablet, you can go right in there download Merlin Bird ID, it’s totally free.

And then once you have it downloaded, you need to find and download the Bird Pack for your area that you’re birding in. And then the last step to getting started is to create an account with the Cornell Lab. So if you already have one, if you already have one for eBird or for Bird Academy, you can use the same exact account here. Or if you don’t have one yet, you need to create an account to be able to submit your sightings.

And then you’re ready to get started. So we help you identify birds, there’s a description option, photo ID and sound ID. And the description is really fun and really simple. So if you just tap on Start Bird ID, you can answer five questions that Merlin will ask you and these are the same types of questions that an experienced bird watcher would be asking you. So it’s a good way to start thinking about bird ID, it’ll ask where you saw the bird, when you saw the bird. These are very important begin starting questions. Then it’ll ask what size the bird was, what colors the bird was and what the bird was doing, what its behavior was?

Then once you answer those, Merlin will give you a list of likely species that it thinks that bird could be, and it’s up to you to go through that list and figure out which bird matches the bird that you saw. And once you’re feeling confident, you can say this is my bird and save it, making sure you get the location correct when you want to report it to the location that you saw it at and then hit Save at the bottom, and you’re done. And it’s reported for the Great Backyard Bird Count.

There are also two other ways to identify birds, photo ID is very fun, very simple. You just take a picture of the bird, you can do it with your cell phone, you can do it with a camera. And then open it in photo ID in the app, zoom in until the bird fills the box, and hit Next, and Merlin will tell you what it is. And photo ID, right now, will send out a little more than [AUDIO GARBLED] the 10,000 species of the world, so it’s a great tool wherever you are.

And then the last way to identify birds with Merlin is sound ID and I think this is the most exciting one it’s a lot of fun to use. So very simple. You just when you’re out birding if you hear a bird, open up sound ID, hit that record button at the bottom. And Merlin will make suggestions as the birds are around you. And then when you’re done recording, you need to review the birds that Merlin suggested. And go through, make sure that their songs match up with what you hear just so you get a little bit more confident and then when you are confident in what you heard, you can submit that sighting just like you did for photo ID or the description, and those will count in the count as well.

One thing to note here is that these sound ID, IDs are just suggestions so Merlin is very accurate and we’re very proud of that. But sometimes, it can make mistakes. So we always recommend trying to see the bird to be extra confident in what you’re, in what you’re seeing to better help with your identification. And one last note that I want to make is that Merlin right now sound ID works on 1,000 species or so total a little bit more than 1,000, including most birds in the US and Canada and Europe. And on common and widespread birds in Central and South America and common widespread birds of India as well. So we are adding more species over time and the eventual goal of this is to have sound ID a tool you can use anywhere in the world. But for now, we’re limited to just those 1,000 species.

[Chelsea Benson] Great, thank you so much, Alli, that’s really helpful just kind of see how the apps work. And so remember, if you’re going through and you’re iding being a bird, when you hit, yes, that’s my bird. It will go to the Great Backyard Bird Count for whether it’s identifying by the five questions, uploading a photo or again, listening and recording or to the sound, and getting the sound ID. We had a pre-submitted question from Isaac, age 8, and I love this question. But pictures and sounds to use for the app?

[Alli Smith] Yes, so all the photos and sounds in Merlin come from people just like all of you who are watching, right now. Birders all over the world who are taking photos and making bird sound recordings while they’re out birding. So when you upload a photo or recording to your eBird checklist they get added to the Macaulay Library archives and that makes them available for us to use in Merlin. So a really great way to help out Merlin help it learn how to identify new bird songs, especially, is to record bird sounds take photos when you’re out birding and submit them to eBird.

[Chelsea Benson] Super, and I guess one thing that I’m seeing mentioned in the Q&A, in the chat, is if you are using Merlin one difference from eBird is you’re not being able to say how many species, you’re just saying that you saw that one bird, so that’s definitely a big differentiation between the two. So Becca, some people that are participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count already use eBird, which is awesome. We’re so glad that you’re participating in Great Backyard Bird Count and eBird, do they need to do anything special to make sure that their eBird checklist goes to the Great Backyard Bird Count?

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] No, they do not. So any eBird activity over the four days will count towards the Great Backyard Bird Count, and I feel that this question from people who submit to special portal pages through eBird, all the portal submissions count too. So no need to do anything different.

[Chelsea Benson] Awesome, and then we’re spending a lot of time talking about apps like mobile phones, and not everybody, including yourself, Becca, as a smartphone user. So do you have to have a smartphone to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count?

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] You do not. Chelsea, just outed me. I am not a user. I use the online platform which I’ll do a very brief run through in just a minute, you do not. If you want to still participate and you don’t use a phone or a computer, I have a couple of suggestions. First of all, you can contact your local Audubon chapters. They’re going to put a link in for how to do that. Some chapters will assist people that want to do the observation and the counting but don’t want to do the entry. So sometimes, your Audubon chapter can help.

Another thing I love to encourage because as many have said, this is such a fun event to do with others, contact a friend who has a phone, call up your kid or your grandchild and say, hey, I love birds but I really don’t want to use this technology, can you help me out? So there’s lots of ways to get around it and still participate if you don’t actually want to either use a phone or use a computer.

[Chelsea Benson] Cool. I love Becca if you could just kind show us that eBird page so that people can kind of get a preview of what it looks like to enter a checklist.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Yes, I am going to show you the page, and I was going to go through this but Chelsea, I think, I’m just going to kind of show the page and then, and then we’ll go, we won’t go in as quite as much depth. But I want to point one thing out to our listeners, this is the page, are we good? Can everybody see my screen?

[Chelsea Benson] Yes, we can.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Awesome, what you will do is once you actually submit a list for the first time, you will actually have location saved in here, which I highly recommend so it makes it quicker for your entries. You can see, I have quite a few. If you’ve never done this before, you’re going to first want to go down and map your spot. And again, this is on a desktop. And I’m going to put in here always go to your state, this search bar can be a little tricky. So I’m going to actually enter a sighting very quickly at SAP sucker woods which is where the lab is located. And I’m going to find New York.

And then the next page is where I’m going to get really detailed about my location. If you try to do detail on the previous page, you might have a hard time. So go big, go state, go province, go territory, and then you can focus on this page. So the address at the Lab of Ornithology is 155 SAP Sucker Woods, there we are, lab of Ornithology. I’m going to Zoom in, I’m going to find, yes, I was right here on the Wilson trail and I’m going to name this my Blue Jay party. Because I saw a lot of Blue Jays there and I’m going to continue. And this page is really important.

If you’re in the portal page for GBBC, you’re only going to have four dates here. In the normal eBird, you’re going to have all months. But you’ll just have four days because that’s when the count is. So you’ll put in your date, you’ll put in whether you were hiking, whether this was just sitting in your home, et cetera. You generally, speaking for GBK we don’t use historical and incidental too much, we mostly use traveling and stationary. But sometimes, people will just report one bird they see saw maybe flying, and then you would use an incidental. So I’m going to say that I was traveling because I went on a nice walk, you’re going to enter your time here, make sure that you put your minutes in otherwise it will error on you which is another common question. So I saw this at 4:45. And make sure, you put the time. I was actually in the afternoon, after work, taking a stroll. Put in how long you walk, walked or watched, how far this is, again, just an estimate.

And then I was by myself, you could put in more if you were by yourself. And then I’m not going to click over but the next page is when you actually type in the name of the birds and the numbers. And I think we’ll leave it at that if you have any problems with this over GBBC weekend, myself and a few others will be working and answering questions and I am happy to help you out.

[Chelsea Benson] Great, thank you, Becca for sharing all that. We’re going to end with Ashwin. Thank you for patiently waiting. So Merlin and eBird, they’re used globally and they’re available in many different languages, which makes them a really powerful tool. And it’s really kind of inspired and gotten a lot of enthusiasm from groups across the world. So I would love if you could share how Bird Count India has really grown participation in this event because last year there were 42,286 checklists submitted across India, which was a 28% growth. So I would love if you could just spend our last couple of minutes inspiring our audience and getting them excited about how you, Bird Count India has helped grow this event?

[Ashwin Viswanathan] Yeah, thanks, Chelsea. Yeah, we take GBBC very seriously in India. So we first began, we first participated in GBBC in 2013. And that was pre the use of eBird in India as a general tool. And that took off, people immediately showed interest. And since then, today, now, it’s the landmark birding event in calendars and so one of the reasons that GBBC really took off is that we’ve always viewed it as a festival or a celebration of birds and a reason for people to come together to organize public bird works. And you mentioned schools and campuses, and schools and campuses began to really participate in, participate in full flow because we started the concept of a campus bird.

So there are two things that we introduced as part of GBBC here. One, is the concept of a public bird walk, where people would register using a Google form and then anybody in the country could seek out the nearest public bird walk and go and learn about birds and birding. And then campus Bird Count because there are so many interested young people who are looking to be connected with nature in various schools and campuses. And campus bird walk gave an opportunity for many of these people to seek out a walk in the campus. And that’s one of the reasons why schools and colleges started participating in the way that they do now.

And they don’t use smartphones in many of these schools, the children and just to reiterate the previous point, you don’t need a smartphone to participate. And another thing that really gets people going is some slight healthy competition, campuses compete with each other in a way, districts and counties. So people try to spend more time birding than everybody else, and overall, people end up enjoying birds more than that really wins out.

[Chelsea Benson] I love how you describe making it like a festival, a community event, everybody’s excited about it, doesn’t matter if you have the technology or the binoculars, it’s just about getting together and learning about birds. So just that simple little action has really had a huge ripple effect. So thank you for all the work that you’re doing with Bird Count India and inspiring people to get out and get excited about birds.

We are up past our was incredibly fast. I want to thank everyone, all of our panelists for joining us today, for sharing their enthusiasm. Yeah, panelists, if you want to turn on your video and give a little wave, that would be so nice to see everybody’s faces. This was a huge team effort. Thank you, please, everyone that tuned in to share the event has often said make it a community happening, get out there from Friday, this Friday, February 17 through Monday, February 20, count as many birds as you can. Remember, you don’t have to be an expert, use all the tools that we put out there.

We will be, if you’re watching on YouTube, this video is going to automatically archive at the same link that you’re watching on, along with all the chat and all the links. And for our audience on Zoom, we’re going to be sending out that video. Again, you’ll be able to see all the links that we’ve been dropping into YouTube. If you watch that video or share it with other people to inspire them to get out and count. So thanks again, everyone. I’m going to give a final wave, have a great afternoon. Happy birding, and enjoy the GBBC.

End of transcript

Looking for a great way to celebrate and support birds with a global community? Look no further than the Great Backyard Bird Count. This annual, four-day bird counting event is right around the corner; join our webinar on Wed. Feb. 15 at 1 p.m. Eastern and discover how to participate. During a live Q&A session, experts from Audubon, Birds Canada, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology will share their tips for making birdwatching easier and more enjoyable for people of all ages and abilities. Get your questions answered about bird ID, counting birds, and more–you’ll leave confident and ready to be part of this fun event!