You can take part in a family-friendly, educational activity that is lots of fun, costs nothing, and helps your local birds. Each year, tens of thousands of people take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). This year is the 16th annual GBBC; a 4-day event which takes place from Friday, February 15, through Monday, February 18.
Participants can count in their backyards, at local parks, nature centers, in the woods or along a lake shore. You can spend as little as 15 minutes counting birds, or even make a whole weekend of it. People of all ages and all levels of bird-watching experience are welcome. The GBBC is a great way to learn more about the birds in your community and connect with nature. You can count by yourself, with your family, community group, school, or friends. It’s an ideal way for more experienced birders to introduce children, grandchildren, and others to the wonderful world of birds.
Participants tally the number of individual birds of each species they see during their count period. They enter these numbers on the GBBC website. Beginning in 2013, each participant must set up a free GBBC account to submit their checklists. You’ll only need to do this once to participate in all future GBBC events. (See how to participate.) Beginning this year, GBBC checklists will be accepted from anywhere in the world!
As the count progresses, anyone with Internet access can explore what is being reported from their own towns or from anywhere in the world. Participants may also send in photographs of the birds they see for the GBBC photo contest. A selection of images is posted in the online photo gallery.
Scientists and bird enthusiasts can learn a lot by knowing where the birds are. Bird populations are dynamic; they are constantly in flux. No single scientist or team of scientists could hope to document and understand the complex distribution and movements of so many species in such a short time.
Scientists use the GBBC information, along with observations from other citizen-science projects, such as the Christmas Bird Count, Project FeederWatch, and eBird, to get the “big picture” about what is happening to bird populations. The longer these data are collected, the more meaningful they become in helping scientists.
If you are not too good at identifying individual bird species there are many online places such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Online Bird Guide, a dynamic resource for bird identification tips, sounds, maps, and natural history information, or you can purchase a good birding book. One particularly good book is 'Birds of Pennsylvania' by Franklin Haas and Roger Burrows.
Places ideal for counting birds locally are at the Pool Wildlife Sanctuary in Emmaus, the Jordan Creek Parkway in Whitehall, the Lehigh Parkway in Allentown, the Jacobsburg Environmental Center in Bushkill Township, Bear Swamp Park at Lake Minsi near Bangor, Nockamixon State Park in Haycock Township and the Peace Valley Nature Center at Lake Galena near Chalfont.
Some good seed choices to attract winter birds to the feeders in your own yard are black oil sunflower, safflower and nyjer (thistle). In wet weather, birdseed can quickly become saturated and develop mold. Maintain fresh, dry seed in the feeder and the container in which the supply is kept. Do not put bread out for the birds. It is not healthy for them and can attract pests like mice, raccoons and undesirable birds like starlings.
Suet is one of the best foods to attract nuthatches, woodpeckers, wrens, titmice, chickadees and cardinals. Unfortunately, it also can attract less desirable species like starlings and squirrels. Sprinkle cayenne pepper on suet to keep squirrels and raccoons away. It doesn’t bother the birds because they can’t smell or taste it. All birds have olfactory organs, but only sea birds and vultures have developed a sense of smell, which helps them locate food via scent. Most birds locate their food by sight.
Suet can be made with beef fat, lard, oats, peanut butter, bacon grease, cornmeal, sunflower seeds and raisins. If you are a deer hunter or know someone who is, you can use venison fat to make suet. Pure suet is better for the birds than pre-made suet cakes which are store bought.
Here is an easy recipe to make suet. Ingredients: 1 cup of peanut butter, 1 cup of beef fat, 6 cups of cornmeal. Melt the beef fat in a pan over low heat. Add the peanut butter and cornmeal, and mix together. Spoon the mixture in paper-lined cupcake or muffin tins and allow to cool. When hardened, remove from the tin and store in the freezer until needed.
Here is a suet recipe that does not contain animal fat. Ingredients: 1½ cups of peanut butter, 1 cup of wild birdseed, ¼ cup of oatmeal and 1½ tablespoons of flour. Mix ingredients together. Press into small plastic containers and put in the freezer. Raisins or other dried fruits can always be added to your suet mix.
Please join the GBBC this year; have fun, get out and enjoy the birds.