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Audubon Society calls on citizen scientists to join the Great Backyard Bird Count

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Posted: Saturday, February 18, 2017 5:00 am

The Great Backyard Bird Count has begun — but there’s still plenty of time for Lodi’s citizen scientists to join in the fun.

Each February, the Great Backyard Bird Count is organized by Cornell University and the Audubon Society to get an idea of where birds are spending their time. This year’s bird count event runs until Monday.

“This event is pretty neat in the way it works. It’s open to anybody and everybody, not just bird watchers,” said David Yee, an expert birder and biologist who leads Heritage Oak Winery’s monthly Bird Walks.

The idea is pretty simple.

First, go to the Great Backyard Bird Count website, www.birdcount.org, and follow the instructions to register. You can’t submit your data without an account.

Second, get counting. All this takes is 15 minutes on at least one of the days between now and Monday. Of course, if you want to count longer or in additional places, that’s more than welcome! Keep separate checklists for different blocks of time or different locations.

Third, submit your observations online at the Great Backyard Bird Count website, or through the eBird smartphone app.

What birds will you see?

There’s a decent variety in Lodi, but which ones visit your backyard may depend on one thing: food.

“Everyone probably knows the California scrub jay,” said Dale Smith, president of the San Joaquin Audubon Society. They visit feeders and love raw, unsalted peanuts, he said.

Mourning doves also like feeders. Gold finches and sparrows will occasionally hop up, but prefer to forage on the ground underneath a feeder for some spilled seed. Other possible sightings in the county could include northern mockingbirds, European starlines and American crows.

“The most common one they would see would be house finches,” Smith said.

The key, he said, is to offer a good mix of bird seed. Would-be birders can get mixes at many grocery stores or big-box retailers, or they can make their own mix. Smith suggested Nyjer seed, black oil sunflower seed and peanuts, among other seeds.

It’s important that seeds used to feed wild birds are all unroasted and unsalted, he added.

How can you tell which birds you’re looking at?

“There are tons of people who love to feed birds. My mother is one of them. But she has no interest in trying to identify them,” Yee said.

Sometimes, the feeling that they must be able to identify every bird they see can discourage new birders — but it shouldn’t.

People recognize a lot more birds than they realize, even ones they’ve never seen in person, Yee said. This isn’t true of other species, he said.

Most people couldn’t name horse breeds, or tell the difference between a snake and a legless lizard. But birds?

“People can do birds and get them to almost the exact species, without even trying,” he said. “They’re not going to confuse a hummingbird with a seagull, or a seagull with a crane.”

List off birds like cardinals, robins, blue jays and bald eagles, and people can picture them.

“That is how the whole thing with the Great Backyard Bird Count got going. Most people can identify the bird at least to the family,” Yee said.

Then, with a little help, they can narrow it down further.

Of course, you don’t have to be able to precisely identify your bird to submit your data.

The Great Backyard Bird Count organizers can use where a bird was spotted and a basic description (what color were the feathers? did it have a crest or long tail? was it eating at a feeder or on the ground?) to determine the species.

They’re more interested in the numbers, anyway.

For Lodi residents who want to solve the puzzle of which birds live in their backyards, though, no need to borrow or buy a field guide.

“If they want help identifying some of the common yard birds, the Great Backyard Bird Count website offers tips,” Smith said.

He also recommended the app Merlin ID. It uses the same kinds of questions the GBBC organizers to to narrow down the possibilities.

“It comes up pretty accurately,” Smith said.

What do scientists do with all that data?

The Great Backyard Bird Count gives the ornithologists — aka bird scientists — at Cornell University and elsewhere a snapshot look at how bird populations are growing, shrinking and moving around the world.

For example, some species of birds have started to migrate earlier. Scientists believe that climate change may be behind the earlier travel. Keeping track of when birds leave or arrive during a migration can let scientists track how temperatures link up.

“These kinds of citizen science projects help you to keep track of (changes in the environment),” Smith said.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is just one of a handful of citizen science projects that helps to track bird populations.

Birding is a good area for people to get involved in citizen science because their contributions are so important for researchers, Yee said.

“The reason why it’s so significant is that birds are so visible, and they give a snapshot of what’s going on with a lot of different things,” he said. “The data is just phenomenal.”

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