From tiny hummingbirds to impressive great-horned owls, birds of all sizes call Sacramento home. Look in your backyard and you’ll likely see many familiar feathered friends, eating seeds, berries and bugs, or hanging out at a much-appreciated feeder.
And thanks to El Niño, weird weather patterns may throw a few long-distance travelers off their usual path, adding new birds to the neighborhood mix. With its prime location on the Pacific Flyway, the greater Sacramento area is already a favorite rest stop and winter way station for migrating flocks, looking for a warm spot to hang out on their way back to Alaska – or South America.
But you won’t know which is which – or how many – unless you actually take a few minutes to watch. The rewards of that brief observation may pay dividends far beyond your back fence.
That’s the impetus behind the Great Backyard Bird Count, one of the world’s largest examples of citizen science at work. Last year’s count totaled more than 147,000 checklists submitted from amateur bird-watchers in more than 100 countries. The results provide a snapshot of changing bird populations as well as valuable data for long-term study.
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Set for four days –Friday, Feb. 12, through Monday, Feb. 15 – over Presidents Day weekend, the bird count asks volunteers to do something very simple: Count birds for as little as 15 minutes in one location and compile a checklist. Pull out the binoculars and jot notes on bird coloring and behavior (those are clues to identification). Better yet, snap photos with your camera or smartphone. Then, share your observations online at www.birdcount.org.
Now in its 19th year, the bird count is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society with partner Bird Studies Canada. It’s made possible in part by sponsor Wild Birds Unlimited.
“We held our first backyard count back in 1998,” explained Cornell’s Pat Leonard, the count’s coordinator. “It started with this newfangled thing called the Internet. We wanted to see if we could get people who watch birds to take part in a data-input experiment. From that small beginning, it’s just kept growing and growing. Now, we have participation worldwide.”
The project plugs into people’s natural fondness for birds and bird-watching.
“Birding ranks only behind gardening as America’s favorite hobby,” Leonard said. “There are millions of people who like to watch birds.”
Helping that global effort is Ebird.org, an online checklist tool that makes it much easier for novice as well as expert birdwatchers to positively identify, record and share their sightings. With a little help from their parents, kids are encouraged to take part, too.
In last year’s count, participants spotted 5,090 species – almost half the world’s known bird species. Of those, 671 were seen in the United States.
Home to lots of birds particularly in winter, California led the nation in last year’s count. Birdwatchers submitted 8,453 checklists, naming a total of 376 species.
“California is one of the birdiest states around,” Leonard said. “Texas and Florida are right up there, too. Having the ocean nearby brings in greater bird diversity. Because of its location, Sacramento in winter always has a lot of birds.”
Ed Harper can attest to that. Former president of the Sacramento Audubon chapter, Harper routinely spots 20 or more species every morning in his Carmichael backyard. A retired college mathematics professor, he also leads birdwatching tours to area hot spots such as Ancil Hoffman Park or the Yolo Bypass.
“On New Year’s Day, I thought I’d get the year off right,” he said. “I came up with 100 species in that one day. The biggest year I ever had was 640 species, but most years are in the 500 range. Last year, I counted about 540 species.
“Birding here is just fantastic,” he added. “We have some species such as the yellow-billed magpie that you really can’t see anywhere else.”
Harper, 75, started observing birds as a child in Montana.
“I’ve been watching birds since I was 6 years of age,” he said. “I’m imprinted. Now, I can’t walk through a parking lot without listening for birds or watching birds. I’ve gone to every continent, looking for birds. It’s become a real passion of mine.”
Most birds that people spot are fairly common, Harper said. “You’ll probably recognize a lot of them right off.”
Among the likely birds in Sacramento: house finch, mourning dove, crow, cedar waxwing, scrub jay, mockingbird, sparrow, goldfinch, junco and woodpecker. At Ebird and the official bird count site, online tips help with specific identification.
“You don’t have to be an expert to do this,” Harper said. “We have lots of experts, checking the lists (for proper identification). The idea is to get as many people as possible looking. The more eyes, the better.”
Scientists are particularly interested in the results of this year’s count, the first to be held during an El Niño year.
“This will be the first time we’ll have tens of thousands of people doing the count during a whopper El Niño,” said Cornell’s Marshall Iliff, a leader of the Ebird program.
“We’ve seen huge storms in western North America, plus, until recently, an unusually mild and snow-free winter in much of the Northeast,” added Audubon chief scientist Gary Langham. “And we’re seeing birds showing up in unusual places. ... We’re curious to see what other odd sightings might be recorded by volunteers during this year’s count.”
Harper noted that Sacramento’s bird population has changed over the decades. Ravens, red-shouldered hawks and snowy egrets – once rarities for our area – are more common.
He encourages novice birders to browse online for some of the species they’re likely to see. Then, grab the binoculars and start counting.
“The more you learn about birds, the more exciting it becomes,” Harper said. “ It’s a fun way to enjoy the outdoors.”
How to be a bird counter
What: Great Backyard Bird Count, an international volunteer census of bird populations
When: Friday, Feb. 12, through Monday, Feb. 15; minimum counting time is 15 minutes.
Where: Anywhere you’d like to observe birds, including your own backyard (front yards, too), parks, schools or open spaces.
Details and forms: www.birdcount.org
Tips and birdwatching tours: www.sacramentoaudubon.org