Heather N. Kolich, ANR Agent, UGA Extension Forsyth County

A man in profile holding binoculars and looking through them.
45 million people in the U.S. engage in birdwatching at some level. Photo by Forest Simon.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the United States has 45 million “birders” over the age of 16. If you’ve traveled at least one mile from home to watch birds, or if you’ve spent time trying to identify birds around your home, you qualify as a birder.

Eighty-seven percent of birdwatchers fall into the backyard birder category. Because hundreds of bird species live in or migrate through Georgia, there are plenty of different birds fluttering around throughout the year. A couple hundred years ago, however, birds were more prized for sport and fashion than their living beauty and ecological value.

During the 1800s, bird feathers, wings, feet, and even whole birds were displayed on hats, clothing, and jewelry. Sport hunters engaged in competitions to see who could shoot the most birds. The abundance of birds seemed endless – until several species became extinct.

By 1900, with bird watchers and scientists expressing concern about declining bird populations, a couple of positive things happened. On May 25, 1900, President McKinley signed the Lacey Act into law. This new law aimed to protect wild birds and game by making it illegal to sell poached wildlife across state lines. In addition to conserving native wildlife, the law worked to prevent introduction of exotic and non-native species into native ecosystems.

An image of a great blue heron standing on a tree branch. There is no foliage on the tree, and there is a pond in the background.
Great Blue Herons (Ardea Herodias) frequent lakes in Georgia. Photo by Chirag Saini on Unsplash.

Another important event was the introduction of the Christmas Bird Count. As an alternative to the Christmas bird hunt, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed a citizen science activity of counting and identifying birds. From that first effort of 27 birdwatchers, the idea grew into an annual North American tradition, with tens of thousands of birders collecting and submitting data to the Audubon Society.

The 123 years of data from the CBC allows researchers to study trends in bird health and populations across time. To ensure validity of data, count locations are fixed, 15-mile diameter circles so that the same geographic area is counted each year. CBC counters are also pre-registered and assigned specific locations, dates, and times for the all-day count.

An easier and more accessible way for adults and kids to get in on the fun of participatory science is through the Great Backyard Bird Count each February. A collaborative effort of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society, and Birds of Canada, GBBC started in 1998 by inviting bird enthusiasts of all experience levels to spend a few minutes in their own backyard observing and counting birds, and then upload their data.

A close up image of an brilliant yellow-headed American Goldfinch standing on a branch with small purple flowers.
American Goldfinch, Carolina Chickadees, and Northern Cardinals are among the birds that visit back yards in Georgia. Photos by Patrice Bouchard on Unsplash.

In 2024, the GBBC observation window is the weekend of February 16-19. To participate, simply decide where you’ll watch birds, observe birds for 15 minutes during at least one day of the event, identify all the birds you see or hear during your watch, and then upload the data. Beginning birders who aren’t sure of species identification can use the Merlin Bird ID app as a learning and data entry tool. Experienced birders can upload bird numbers or their bird list through the eBird mobile app or eBird website.

For more information, visit https://www.birdcount.org/. Save the dates on your 2024 calendar, and let’s get Forsyth County lighting up the real-time GBBC global map next February.