Delaware News

A walk in the park

Bird-counting reveals wealth of information


There's a knack to counting birds. In addition to my usual walks in the parks, I spent time a few days ago watching birds at the feeders at Hogback Ridge Preserve; I figured I would prepare for the Great Backyard Bird Count, which is coming up Feb. 15-18.

So I planted myself at the large viewing windows and watched as birds flew to and from the feeders, grabbing seeds while always being on alert for predators. There were titmice and finches, chickadees and nuthatches, several kinds of woodpeckers and that ubiquitous winter ground feeder, the dark-eyed junco.

At this particular hour, finches -- still in their olive-drab winter feathers -- were in the greatest number, so I decided to count them first.

Despite the fact that these birds seemed constantly on the move, I counted to 12 before a couple flew away and more flew in. The rule for counting birds for science says you can count only those that you see at one time. You can't assume the two that just flew in are new birds; they might really be the same ones that just left. (Logic tells me otherwise, but I don't make the rules.)

The juncos were easier. Not at all intimidated by the squirrels that were muscling their way into the space under the feeders, these winter visitors from the Great White Canadian North fearlessly held their ground and snapped up seeds. They stayed long enough for me to count seven of them, then flew away en masse, responding to some real or imagined danger. They returned soon -- but were they the same birds or new ones? I didn't know, but I couldn't count them as new.

I was distracted for a moment by a tufted titmouse that pecked away at a small tree branch. The bird's diet includes invertebrates gleaned from twigs and bark, but I wondered whether the bird would really find anything like that in the dead of winter. With feeders full of delicious seed within reach, why bother with the twigs?

Rich Niccum, Preservation Parks' education services manager and lead naturalist, confirmed that insects and spiders can indeed be found in twigs and branches this time of year, so the titmouse's behavior was perfectly normal. I turned my attention back to counting, but ended up with only two titmice.

As I wrote earlier, the Great Backyard Bird Count is Feb. 15-18, and takes place across the United States and Canada. Last year, more than 104,000 bird lists were submitted, with about 17.4 million individual bird observations. Clearly, a lot of people take this bird-counting business very seriously.

And why not? Bird-watching is a hobby that can turn into an avocation for some, and the Great Backyard Bird Count lets even casual bird-watchers contribute to the body of avian knowledge. Here's how the bird count works:

First, you'll want to visit the website to create an account and learn about listing birds. Then you will commit to watching birds for at least 15 minutes on at least one of the four days of the count, at as many locations as you wish. Finally, you will submit your results.

Several months later, you will learn what your list (and the hundred-thousand-plus others) tell scientists.

Here is a tidbit from last year: The winter populations of blue jays was down in the Great Lakes states in 2012. Because the blue jay population fluctuates based on wild food availability, last year's bird-counters revealed there was not enough food, probably acorns, to keep the jays happy. So they left.

What might your count tell scientists? All the combined data might tell them how weather influences bird populations, or how the timing of bird migration compares with past years.

It can help show how bird diseases, such as West Nile Virus, affect birds in different regions, and how bird diversity differs between cities and rural areas.

Preservation Parks will submit lists -- and you can help us. Come to Deer Haven Preserve, 4183 Liberty Road, or Hogback Ridge Preserve, 2656 Hogback Road, from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 16-17.

We'll help you identify some feeder birds and show you how to accurately count them.

Bird-related activities for families also are in store on those days.

Mostly, you'll be amazed at how much you can learn -- and contribute to science -- during a mere 15 minutes of Bird-watching.

Sue Hagan is marketing and communications manager for Preservation Parks of Delaware County.