By Mary Free, Extension Master Gardener
Launched in the United Sates in 1998 and supported by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society and Birds Canada, the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is held annually in mid-February. It became an international event in 2013, so now anyone in the world can participate. In 2020, more than 268,000 people took part in this citizen science project. They identified 6,942 species among the over 27 million birds counted in 194 countries.
Sometimes you do not have to venture far to be a bird watcher. These mourning doves were observed from a dining room window constructing their nest in February. Video © 2020 Mary Free
Learn how you can participate in the GBBC–all you have to do is watch birds for at least 15 minutes, at least once, from February 12 through February 15, 2021. You will need to record the date and start and end time of your session; the location (if you have health concerns, you need not travel beyond your home); and the number and types of birds that you see. If you cannot identify a bird, snap a picture or note its prominent features and use the free Merlin Bird ID App or All About Birds website. You have until March 1 to enter the list of birds that you observed over the four days in February via smart phone or computer.
Researchers and other professionals use the data collected in citizen science projects like GBBC for scientific studies and conservation efforts. In October 2019, Science published a study, Decline of North American avifauna, which reported a loss of almost 3 billion birds or 29% of the 1970 avian population in North America. Habitat loss, climate change, and human-related avian mortality (collision with windows, vehicles, power lines, wind turbines, and communication towers; agricultural and industrial activities; and feral and pet cats) have contributed to this dramatic decline.
In April 2019, Biological Conservation published a study, Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers, which revealed that 40% of insect species were threatened with extinction due to habitat loss, climate change (especially in the tropics), chemical use, and biological factors. Among those most threatened were Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), whose caterpillars are the primary food source for nestlings. Although individually we cannot control many of these contributors to avian and insect decline, we can improve the habitats on our own properties to make them more inviting for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife.
How do you attract birds and butterflies to your yard or garden? Like people, birds and butterflies require food, water, and shelter. Like people, they prefer their food and water be close to where they live. And like people, they favor certain types of homes and certain types of food. If you plant to meet their needs, they will flock or flutter to your garden. Creating Inviting Habitats examines the habitat requirements for birds and butterflies common to our local area. In fact, most of the plants and wildlife were photographed in Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax, Virginia.
Creating Inviting Habitats contains information about the types of plants, nest boxes, and water features that will attract specific bird species, including hummingbirds, as well as plants–both host and nectar–that will attract butterflies. It also provides an overview of planning your garden space to accommodate them as well as additional resources and references. It is available in PDF, in ePub format from Virginia Cooperative Extension or can be downloaded free on iTunes.