The participation of non-professionals in scientific activities has become so widespread that it now has its own designation. It is called citizen science.
One of the best opportunities to join this activity occurs next weekend, when the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is held in the United States and Canada.
The count period runs from Friday through Feb. 20, 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 on to the Cornell Lab's BirdSource Web site -- www.birdsource.org/gbbc -- click on "Submit Your Bird Checklist" and follow the simple instructions to file your report. Readers who are not computer savvy may consider this a serious hurdle, but remember that your local library has computer stations and friendly librarians to help you with this quite straightforward procedure.
Although the word "backyard" is included in the title of the count, you are not restricted to that area. The instructions say: "Count the birds in your back yard, local park or other natural area on one or all four count days. You can count in as many different locations as you wish, just make sure to keep separate records and fill out a checklist for each area."
This will be the eighth count year. Last year more than 52,000 checklists were submitted, an indication of both the popularity and the continued growth of the avocation of bird watching.
As an old fogy who has been around since before the computer revolution, I find myself astonished by the immediate feedback the GBBC Web site provides. Submitted checklists are processed immediately, and you can get information about totals for North America, for the Great Lakes Region and for New York, as well as maps for individual species.
My favorite way to use the maps is to pick a species of interest to me, say evening grosbeak; then a region, either Great Lakes or North America; and finally "Multiyear Animation." I'm interested in evening grosbeaks, those large goldfinch look-alikes that gobble sunflower seeds by the pound, because they have been absent from Buffalo feeders for several years.
The animation agrees with my experience. The evening grosbeak has indeed been away from Buffalo since 2000 (the period covered by the animation), but a few did occur in the Southern Tier in 2000, 2002 and 2004.
The amount of information on the Web site is overwhelming, and some is quite unexpected. I would never have guessed the species with the greatest numbers in North America last year. My guess, Canada goose, would have been close -- it was second with 688,715 reported. But 835,369 snow geese made first.
Local birders are fortunate to see a few snow geese each year, but they have become so common at their breeding grounds around Hudson and James Bay that they are destroying habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tells us: "The mid-continent population of lesser snow geese has tripled to nearly 6 million in the past 30 years. As a consequence of their numbers and their destructive feeding habits, large tracts of coastal wetlands are being degraded, consumption that adversely impacts most of the species sharing this coastal habitat." Those birds migrate mostly to our Western states.
Although we don't see many here, snow goose numbers are already increasing in central New York. Thousands are recorded during migrations at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge and in the Finger Lakes each year. They are beautiful birds, their lovely white bodies with black wing tips marred only by an ugly grin mark on their bills, and we'll soon be seeing more.
Those two goose species topped the totals list, but the cardinal headed the list of birds most often reported on national lists. In New York it was beaten out by the black-capped chickadee and was only slightly ahead of the downy woodpecker.
I urge readers to participate in this national census. It is a great way to beat cabin fever.