The call - and count - of the wild

Birds: Ever-growing flocks of Marylanders are watching our feathered friends. They're invited to join the Great Backyard Bird Count.

February 06, 2000|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff

Do you have any idea how many people are for the birds? How many watch them, feed them, house them, provide bathing facilities for them, and even -- for various reasons -- count them?

We're talking about birds in the wild of course, and here's one answer: About one-third of the adult population of North America puts out about a billion pounds of birdseed every year.

Among outdoor activities, bird watching has eclipsed golfing, hiking and skiing in the United States. And birding -- the all-encompassing term for watching and caring for wild birds -- is a $14 billion a year business. And by the way, it's also fun.

"Backyard bird-watching is the closest way most people can get to nature," said Hugh Simmons, a self-described "pretty avid but not obsessed" birder who happens to be president of the Chesapeake Chapter of the National Audubon Society. "Birds are the most accessible type of wildlife. They're around, in large quantities, and they're pretty, some of them."

With 700 or more species in the United States and thousands in the world, birds provide plenty to look at.

But what was once perceived as a goofy hobby for gadabout geezers has evolved into something far more important.

That's why organizers are hoping to attract more than 80,000 people -- and maybe 600 in Maryland -- to this year's Great Backyard Bird Count, sponsored by the National Audubon Society and Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology. This year's count takes place from Feb. 18 through Feb. 21. All volunteers have to do is, once a day over the four days, take a walk or check the feeder and count the birds of each species they see.

Most of the birds that people in this area spot will be familiar and easily identifiable: crows, robins, Canada geese, gulls, pigeons, cardinals. (Unless you're at Fort Lauderdale Stadium in Florida, you're not likely to see any Baltimore Orioles. The feathered orioles winter from southern Mexico to Brazil.)

The Audubon Society advises familiarizing yourself with the region's birds beforehand. You can get a field guide, or look at the data on the Web site www.birdsource.org. The Web site also has tips on how to watch, such as how to use binoculars (find the bird first, then raise the binoculars to your eyes).

"Most people we've talked to who are novices have a surprisingly easy time of it," said John Bianchi, of the National Audubon Society in New York City. Although some birds look alike, "field marks" such as white spots or beak configuration, plus behavior and location can help you identify what you're seeing. For instance, Bianchi said, titmice and blue jays look alike, but the jay is a foot long and the titmouse only 3 inches. Robins and towhees look alike, but towhees have whites splotches on their sides. Sparrows like feeders; wrens like underbrush.

There will be some mistakes, Bianchi said, but the computer that compiles the data will be able to tell if something seems wrong. They are, however, trying to get exact numbers; if you see a flock of Canada geese and report there were 45, "we would hope you counted 45."

Whether it's 25 degrees out or 65, snow or no snow, the data will be important, Bianchi said. "One of the things we're doing is trying to see what effects the weather has. We've had two very warm winters [the last two years], and we saw some unexpected things. We very poorly understand how weather affects bird migrations. All new information is valuable."

The simple act of counting bird species, even in your own back yard, can offer important clues to changes in climate and habitat worldwide. While one year's count can turn up anomalies, counting over time will reveal patterns.

"It's progressed to the level of citizen science," said Simmons, who, when he's not watching birds at his home in Phoenix, is head of the department of anesthesiology at Johns Hopkins Hospital.The idea, said Rick Leader, director of the National Audubon Society for Maryland, is to "build upon past volunteer efforts -- the citizen scientists -- to get people to capture a snapshot of 'species richness' -- how many different species are out there at this time of year."

"One year's count is not very valuable," said Leader, who's based on the Eastern Shore at at the Jean Ellen duPont Shehan Audubon Sanctuary in Bozman, Talbot County. However, he said, "you develop valuable trend data that over time becomes very high quality science information."

All the data is collected over the Internet, Leader said, which makes it quick and easy to compile. In a surprisingly short time, scientists are able to post a map with year-to-year changes in species behavior.

So far, Leader said, they have at least learned that, in the last couple of years' mild winters, ospreys are leaving Maryland later to fly to their southern habitat, and some blue herons are staying all winter.

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