Get ready for the Great Backyard Bird Count

January 31, 2014 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

Great Backyard Bird Count

My kids still talk about the yellow-bellied sapsuckers that nested in our trees in the summer of 2011, and the Eastern Screech Owl that perched still as stone on the peak of the shed roof for almost 30 minutes one day before flying off.

We love to watch the birds in our backyard. They are colorful, comical and interesting. Mostly we see sparrows, chickadees, cardinals, robins, blue jays, etc. – the typical flock for our corner of upstate New York. But occasionally, we see a stranger passing through, a species that catches our eye because it’s different from the typical crowd.

We’re gearing up for the 17th annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). This four-day international bird count is open to birders of all ages and abilities – and it’s the perfect family activity for a cold winter weekend.

The GBBC will be held Friday, Feb. 14, through Monday, Feb. 17, 2014. It is a partnership between the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, with Bird Studies Canada as the official Canadian partner. The data collected, including what your family might record, gives researchers information about location and size of bird populations across the country in February.

Each year we participate – anything titled “the Great” appeals to our family – and we feel good about being part of this fun, free and easy scientific endeavor. More than that, the whole process engages our children in learning – about birds, the environment, scientific research, and by extension about photography, writing and optics. (How do these binoculars work, Dad?)

The most important part of the weekend is how it reinforces something important that we, as parents, want our children to understand and embrace. Learning can be fun. It can happen all the time, wherever you are, doing whatever you are doing, even stuff you really enjoy.

The kids love watching the birds, identifying the species in our bird guide, logging their findings (a little competitive spirit in each helps this along) and later studying more about the birds they just observed out our windows. To squeeze some art into the mix, our daughter likes to draw pictures in pastel of the birds she sees.

Our yard is a habitat, both for us and the birds, and helping to make it healthier and more comfortable for the birds has become a special project for our kids. And that’s great news, because the more involved they get through their own initiative, the more they learn on their own.

Great Backyard Bird Count

The GBBC is a great opportunity to share a fun – and educational – experience with your kids. Birds are everywhere, so everyone can do it. It’s essentially three simple steps:

  • Count birds anywhere you like for at LEAST 15 minutes – or even longer if you wish. Keep track of the kinds of birds you see and how long you watched.
  • Make your best estimate of how many birds you saw of each species. For example, 5 Northern Cardinals, 3 American Crows. Huge flocks may be a challenge, but your best guess is still valuable.
  • Enter your list(s) online at Put in a new checklist: 1) for each new day, 2) for each different location, 3) for the same location, same day, if you counted at a different time of day

You do need to set up an online account, but that’s easy too. Visit the official website at and follow the steps on how to participate. You’ll also find fun – and educational – activities for your children here.

Don’t know much about birds? Don’t worry, here’s a link to Cornell’s Ornithology Lab Bird Guide

We probably won’t see one in our own backyard, but our family watches for the American Kestrel, North America’s littlest falcon. They are very pretty and colorful, and since we learned that they are declining in numbers some parts of their range, our kids keep a protective eye open for them.

Let us know what birds you saw when you looked out the window this year.

Great Backyard Bird Count Instructions

Bird watching resources

You can help the birds

Tom Antis has been a communications specialist with the Capital Region BOCES Communications Service since January 2008. He and his wife, Julie, along with their two children, ages 10 and 11, enjoy counting and caring for the many varieties of birds that visit their backyard each season. Their favorite winter visitor is, of course, the fiery red Northern Cardinal.

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