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Citizen science to drive upcoming 'Great Backyard Bird Count'

The data collected from the count is helping researchers better understand our world and the environmental changes it's facing.
The world is going to the birds – at least for a weekend. From February 17-20, the "Great Backyard Bird Count" is aiming to get as many as people as possible to take 15 minutes to note the number and types of birds around them.
How many birds can you see or hear around you? Over the course of several days, birds will play a starring role in a massive citizen science project -- and everyone is invited to join in
No matter the location, experts say there are little things people can do to help encourage birds to thrive around them.
Last year's count included 384,000 people in more than 80 countries around the world. Participants, like marine educator Katie Higgins, log their observations on the count's website, which helps researchers better understand what environmental changes birds may be facing.
Posted at 10:22 AM, Feb 17, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-17 10:22:21-05

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — With her camera at the ready, Patty Kappmeyer prepares for visitors in her backyard.

"It's just my passion and it's where I go to relax," she said.

Fluttering about, birds flock to her home on Hilton Head Island, drawn in by tall trees and hanging treats.

"I've been keeping a journal on birds and just even in my backyard for like years," Kappmeyer said.

She sits on the board of the local Hilton Head chapter of the National Audubon Society, which is among those leading the annual "Great Backyard Bird Count,” from Feb. 17-20.

The count is people-driven and you don't have to be a bird expert to help.

"It's so easy. Just come sit outside in your yard or go to a park,” Kappmeyer said. "You know, there's plenty of online apps, like Merlin and eBird and other ones, like BirdNET, where you can just record the sound and it will come back and tell you what bird it is."

Last year's count included 384,000 people in more than 80 countries around the world. Participants log their observations on the count's website, which helps researchers better understand what environmental changes birds may be facing.

"We're seeing birds here that we never saw before," Kappmeyer said.

Just down the coast from Kappmeyer's home, Katie Higgins and Diana Churchill are keeping an eye out for birds at the University of Georgia Marine Education Center, near Savannah.

"Birds certainly are in the marine environment," Higgins said.

Higgins, an educator at the center and part of the local Ogeechee Audubon Society, said the data collected during the more than 25 years of the count is crucial for researchers.

"You're getting a snapshot of that seasonality of when birds are spending time in certain areas,” she said. “So, the more people we have looking at the same time, the better that data contributes to long-term trends."

Those are trends that Diana Churchill said she's observed first-hand, with warmer winters occurring in the area.

"Twenty years ago, if you found a Baltimore Oriole here in the winter, it was a rarity. It was a rare bird alert,” said Churchill, who is also with the Ogeechee Audubon Society. “Now, lots of Baltimore Orioles are wintering in this area, instead of going down to Florida or the islands or Central America."

No matter the location, Churchill said there are little things people can do to help encourage birds to thrive around them.

"How can I improve my diversity? What native plants might I add, that will bring more birds in and help them nest here and give them the food that they need, etc.?" she said. "What we do in our backyards becomes very important to the birds and to the wildlife."

That is something Patty Kappmeyer understands and hopes others will, too.

"It just became an awareness of how important birds and protecting their habitats is,” she said, “and how fragile they are and just how beautiful they are."

It is a beauty they hope everyone will take note of - and help count.

If you would like to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count, you can find more information at birdcount.org