An indication of the national popularity of bird study and, in particular, a winter form of that activity, feeder watching, is the fact that last year more than 100,000 people participated in the third Great Backyard Bird Count.
This year, almost certainly, many more will report the birds in their back yard, neighborhood, local park or schoolyard to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.
The four-day count period runs from Friday through next Monday, and participants can count on any one or all of those days. To participate, tabulate the highest number of each bird species you see at one time -- to ensure that birds are not counted more than once -- and keep track of the time spent counting. Then log onto the Cornell Lab's BirdSource Web site (www.birdsource.com) and follow the simple instructions to file your report. Readers who are not computer users may consider this a serious hurdle, but remember that your local library has computers and friendly librarians to help you with this quite straightforward procedure.
As with so many Web sites today, this one is a mine of information. It provides individual maps of the counts for each species during the earlier years. It also shows where the most count participants were. And the software processing is so remarkable that it will incorporate this year's results immediately as they come in.
A warning: Don't start exploring this site if you haven't time to spare. If you are like me, you'll find it absorbing -- and addictive.
TI found the results for New York State on last year's count most interesting. Before you read on, take a minute or two to guess which six of the total 122 species reported attained the highest count totals.
I expect that everyone who guessed would include in their answer at least a few of the most commonly reported species, for they certainly confirm my observations. Here they are in order of their totals: Canada goose, American crow, European starling, mourning dove, black-capped chickadee and house sparrow.
Of special interest to me are those first two species. Not many people realize that the Canada goose was uncommon 80 years ago. By last year, 32,947 were counted across the state, and, despite duplications, I am certain that number represents a small fraction of our real total last February. (I am afraid that I agree with the golf course owners who wish that some entrepreneur would open Kentucky Fried Canada Goose franchises.) And now we see more crows in our cities than we do in the countryside. That on this count they even outnumbered the ubiquitous starling is certainly discouraging.
Quite unexpectedly, the seventh on that list is the common redpoll. Almost as many of them were reported as house sparrows. I didn't see a single redpoll last winter, but it must have been an incursion year for them. This species breeds in the very distant north, most of them in the tundra beyond the tree line, and only occasionally, during years when they find winter food scarce, do they retreat this far south. The BirdSource maps show most of the reports coming from the eastern part of the state. Comparing the maps for 2000 with those for 1998 and 1999 shows how different an incursion year is.
For those who enjoy competition, the 2000 report also lists the cities where the most species were seen. Buffalo's 49 species was third, Ithaca highest with 74. I am certain that Buffalo could outdo them this year.
So share your observations this weekend -- few birds or many -- with others across the country.