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A Great Backyard for a Bird Count

by Bryony Angell

Are you doing the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) over the weekend of February 17th through the 20th this year?

No matter if you’re a casual counter or a list keeper, the GBBC is worth doing, for the annual sample of wild bird abundance and distribution that results from the thousands of participants counting birds across the U.S. and Canada. Want to contribute to meaningful science while drinking your coffee on a Sunday morning? Hard to say “No”, isn’t it?

Launched in 1998, the GBBC is a collaboration between The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and The National Audubon Society to engage bird lovers every year over a February weekend. Participants count every species seen in any location of their choosing, allowing for at least 15 minutes of dedicated observation during the set weekend.

The “backyard” is merely a suggestion, but an important one, as urban, suburban and rural backyards indicate what species are most adaptable to and successful around human activity. Seattle Audubon has members living in and around many different habitats in what is known as the Puget Sound Trough. As many as 265 species inhabit this ecoregion, according to Bird Web. It’s unlikely any single yard will contain all 265 species over a single weekend, but city dwellers can count on upwards of 30 to 40 possible bird species in some especially rich urban habitats.


Now That’s a Backyard!

Of course, there are backyards out there that can smite even the most smug urban birder for inadequacy (speaking for myself here). Stepping onto Carleen and Neil Zimmerman’s property in the city of Brier, northeast of Seattle, was an experience of instant chastening for my own home’s birdscaping: their front yard teemed with little creatures darting among the native plants and feeders suspended from boughs and hooks. I dodged a male Anna’s hummingbird coming at me like a drone, his tiny body missing my head by inches, even before reaching the front door.

The Zimmermans--longtime Seattle Audubon members and volunteers, as well as Master Birders and former board members--host a wildlife Shangri-la on their small parcel of suburbia. You can tell such a yard superficially by its movement; the landscape dances with activity of birds in contrast to the deserted yards of neighbors. Lush plantings of evergreen huckleberry, salal and red flowering currant provide cover and food for birds, as do the un-raked leaves, hiding insect meals. “That sign doesn’t mean we’re lazy,” says Neil, referencing the National Wildlife Federation certified backyard wildlife habitat post out front. “It means we’ve got a wildlife sanctuary!”

Yards like the Zimmerman’s replace and link valuable habitat for birds. Multiple yards joined in certification can create a flyway of yards within a single community. “Another Brier resident is trying to certify the city,” says Neil. “But the city still needs about 20 more families to sign up.”

In fact, the Zimmermans have responded to changes in their neighborhood, with direct support of birds. They installed an owl box in their yard after a greenbelt across the street from their home was logged for a housing development. “We had heard Western Screech owls in that greenbelt for seven to eight years,” says Carleen. “We figured they had nested there and would need someplace new.” That was indeed the case. Western Screech owls have nested twice in their yard in recent years, including last summer.


Backyard Birding is Year-round

Since 1992, the Zimmermans have cultivated their yard to attract and support over 86 species of wild birds. Using a combination of native plants, feeders, water features, bird boxes, snags and predator deterrents (they have a screened porch to allow their cat Gus outdoor time), they’ve mastered the intent of “gardening for life.” In fact, Neil teaches the techniques of creating backyard wildlife habitat to groups around the region.

They keep a variety of records of the yard, both in photos and drawings. Carleen brings out her garden journal, filled with notes and illustrations. Neil flips through an album of photos taken during stages in the landscaping, images showing turf removal, rock distribution, pathway layouts and feeder station installation. “And we count every day,” says Carleen. “We keep a list per year of everything we see or hear from our house. Some years it’s 47 or 59. The total for our yard since we started is 87 species.”

At that moment, a sudden disorganized fluttering of Band-tailed pigeons in the back yard distracts us like a child’s pillow fight outside. Seconds later, a blue streak darts across the yard and the entire population of birds big and small flees into the understory. “That might have been a Cooper’s hawk,” says Carleen.


The Great Backyard Birdcount--Are the Zimmermans doing it this year?

As rich as what the Zimmermans have created, they know Cornell would be grateful to have their data. But so far, they’ve only done the GBBC sporadically. “We haven’t done it consistently because of the date,” says Neil. The Zimmermans are usually out of town over the long Presidents’ Day weekend, the typical date of the GBBC. “But it’s a great program. Maybe we’ll do it this year.”


Get Counting!

And so could you! The GBBC rules dictate you can count from anywhere in the world, in fact, not just someplace local to you. Head over to the GBBC page to sign up and then submit your data after your count.

If you want to learn more about the National Wildlife Federation backyard wildlife habitat certification program, visit their information page to see how you can create a habitat of your own.


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