Explore your neighborhood, or a designated natural area, on any given day and take an inventory of all the bird species you can sight.
Each year the new data is compared with the past, and information comes to light about the prevalence and patterns of the bird wildlife in your area. This activity is interesting, informative, and a contribution to local wildlife knowledge.
The National Audubon Society of the US and Bird Studies Canada collect information from over 2400 individual bird counts in North America. These counts are held between Dec. 14 – Jan. 5th. You can visit their websites for more information if you want to join in with an organized count in your area. Or you can just create your own count any time of year (or more often) as a way of getting outdoors and learning more about the local wildlife.
As we learn more about our local wildlife, we make more informed choices about lifestyle decisions which impact wildlife.
Consider the Benefits of Participating in a Bird Count:
- Learn about the variety of bird species in your neighborhood.
- Observe and measure the changes in species population.
- Sharpen your listening and observation skills.
- Enjoy a family activity: all ages can participate in a bird count.
- Applies to any environment: urban, suburban or rural.
- Helps acknowledge the importance of local wildlife and the natural world.
Each person should have his or her own notebook to keep a record of sightings, sketches, and anecdotes. At the end of the day, everyone tallies their sightings and the total is recorded in each person’s book, along with the number of people participating. You’ll re-use this notebook with every bird count, and before long it will become a “memory book” to enjoy throughout the years.
It works best if each person has their own pair. Look for an inexpensive pair of binoculars with a 7 or 8x magnification. Zoom lenses are not necessary: although they magnify the image, they also narrow the field of view. Smaller binoculars are easier to pack, less expensive, and good enough for all but the more serious birders.
Children may prefer a monocular. Less expensive than binoculars, a monocular is also lightweight and fits easily into a pocket.
A small set of the basic colors will do, along with a small pocket pencil sharpener. They are useful for making sketches in your notebook. Not all species are easy to identify in the field, and the sketch is consulted later on when making the tally of the day. The sketches also make your journal look good.
Just as essential as the binoculars, a field guide to local birds will help you identify what you’re seeing. Be sure to get a local guide to birds rather than something showing birds around the world, or you’ll end up toting too much weight. A paperback edition is also easier to pocket, and will be put to hard use in the field. Good photos or detailed color drawings are more useful than a lot of technical information.
Optional. If you want a ‘game trophy’ of your best sighting, bring one along. Be sure it has a good zoom lens.
Serious birders often use expensive little hearing aids to help locate birds in the wild. They are effective, but certainly not essential. Developing natural listening skills is satisfying, helps to focus concentration, and is a good basic skill to hone for enjoying and discovering more in nature.
Water and Snacks
Bringing a supply of drinking water is a must. If children are along, you’ll need a supply of snacks. No need to cut short a good time because someone has the munchies! Natural snacks like nuts and seeds are a fitting treat for outdoor activities.
Tips for a Successful Bird Count
Plan the Route Ahead of Time
Take the time to plan a good route. It should be long enough for a hike of several hours and lead through a variety of terrain and habitat. Keep in mind the age and fitness levels of your group members. Try to do the same or similar route each year to get a good record of the status of your local bird population. Make a record of the route and enter it in your journal.
Be Consistent with the Time Spent for Each Count
Spend about the same amount of time each time you do a bird count, for more accurate comparisons. Also, try to go out at the same time of day, again for comparisons. Early morning is usually the favored time for general bird sightings in most areas.
Count the Number of Birds within Each Species Observed
While it’s fun to count the number of different species you observe, remember to record the number of birds within each species you see. This is a valuable element in the process because it gives you a look at the status of each species’ population year after year. If you see a flock of birds, try to estimate their number. When making repeat sightings, make a note and enter it later in your journal under the tally section.
Observe the Seasonal Changes in Local Bird Populations
Annual bird counts can be more than once a year. You can determine your own bird count schedule, and become an expert on local bird species and population during each season. Every season brings migratory changes, all worth observing and noting.
Group Size Can Be Large or Small
Any number can participate, and an annual bird count is a great community event. Larger groups will be noisier, but the sightings are fun to share together. Dedicated bird counters may want to divide an area up and split the large group into smaller groups to cover more area and to be less obtrusive to wildlife. A notice can be posted showing the overall boundary of the bird count, and people can choose any route they like. At day’s end all meet together to tally the results. A shared pot-luck dinner can make the event downright festive. It will likely become an annual event.
Young Children are Most Welcome!
Some avid birders may want to leave the young children at home, fearing they will have a short attention span or spoil the sightings with distracting noise or behavior. But the young ones have keen eyes and can contribute to the sightings. And most importantly, children need to learn about our interest and respect for nature at the earliest age. These events may set a lifelong pattern of appreciation for nature.
Let the young ones make some of the sightings. If you see a ‘new’ bird, wait and give them a chance make the discovery. Let even the youngest ones have their own journal to keep their drawings and entries. They’ll be proud to share their entries with the group later on, and over time their journals will become family treasures.
Move Slowly and Steadily, at the Pace of Nature
Some in the group, especially the younger members, may want to rush ahead to see what’s next. Point out to them that most creatures in nature move slowly when not alarmed. When a person moves quickly or suddenly in the forest, the ripple of energy is noticed by surrounding wildlife who instinctively move away from the sound of activity. Your group should proceed at a measured pace, stopping regularly for a while, keeping a calm aspect and speaking quietly together.
Quiet Brings Results
It’s natural to want to make loud exclamations when making a new bird sighting, but this is counterproductive during a bird count. It takes some practice to remain quiet, and children will need reminding, but this greatly enhances the experience of being in nature.
Enjoying the Shared Experience is the Priority, Not the Birds
In the eagerness to spot and identify local birds, it can be easy to get excited and put the bird count above the shared experience in being together in nature. Relax and have fun together, and if someone scares the birds off with a loud exclamation or some inappropriate birding behavior, let it go. It’s more important to have fun together in nature: there will be other opportunities to spot birds. The small adventures we take with family and friends are fleeting and precious, so enjoy each moment!