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Celebrate Valentine's Day with the 2014 GBBC

Backyard birds in the Bronx between snowfalls
Backyard birds in the Bronx between snowfallsDHM

"How do I love thee? Let me count the birds."

Okay, that's not exactly what Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote. But this year the emendation is appropriate because the first day of the Great Backyard Bird Count coincides with Valentine's Day. So birdwatchers will be setting aside bouquets, boxes of chocolate, and billets-doux to count the birds in their back yards and then report the results online. As in years past, the count can be done in as little as 15 minutes a day and if no back yard is available, in any location where birds are likely to congregate. The GBBC runs from Friday, February 14, until Monday, February 17, and counts can be made on any or all of those 4 days.

First time participants to the GBBC can read the instructions and register for the count at: http://gbbc.birdcount.org/get-started/

Those already familiar with the GBBC know that in 2013, it became an international event. A glance at the results shows how much it has expanded. All seven continents were represented and out of the 10,240 species of bird known to exist worldwide, 4,004 appeared on the checklists. Mexico reported the greatest number of species; next came the US, India, and Costa Rica.

Because the GBBC was originally limited to the U.S. and Canada, where many people were already practiced participants, North American species predominated in the checklists. With the added "depth and breadth and height" (to return to Barrett Browning's sonnet once again) of international participation, that will surely change. And our concept of a "backyard bird" will have to be modified. One of the species most frequently reported in 2013 was the Eurasian blackbird, widespread in India and Europe. From the new global perspective, a bird that previously would have seemed "exotic" to us will now fall into the same category as those staples of our checklists, the northern cardinal, junco, or mourning dove.

Meanwhile, GBBC participants who happen to have access to wide open spaces should be on the lookout for snowy owls, Bubo scandiacus, the species that's created a media buzz, both for getting hurt in a road accident and for appearing in unprecedented large numbers far from their Arctic homes, as far as Bermuda and Florida. At last year's GBBC, the southernmost reach of the snowy owl migration was NYC, with a single owl reported in Georgia.

This Valentine's Day (and for the next three days) let's see where the snowy owls are and how many we can count.