why i count birds (& why you should)

pine grosbeaksI LEARNED RECENTLY that I am one of 50,000 people (a million total so far) who submit monthly  bird-watching checklists to ebird.org, a joint program of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon. That number is up from only 5,000 a month just three years ago (and you can make it 50,001 if you sign up to help now). But why bother?

I count birds because being a citizen scientist—that is being a real person without scientific training who collects and shares data so it can be used by scientists—is the only way the vast work of observing and recording the goings-on of the earth’s species can ever happen. Efforts by citizen scientists give experts a population baseline to work against to gauge impact when an oil spill or other catastrophe occurs. Data from citizen scientists has provided a basis for evaluating declines in populations and identifying which species are at highest risk (on the so-called Watch List). It is important (and also immensely pleasurable).

Which points to the fact that some of the reasons I count birds are entirely selfish. I count birds because I find it relaxing and also exhilarating: the meditative aspect of just staring out the window or up into the trees from below; the ever-present possibility something unusual will happen and I will be there to see it.

I count birds because of their great beauty, and their hard-wired miracle of flight.

I count birds because I cannot imagine being alone in my garden without them, or their songs.

I count birds because even though they are virtually weightless—a robin weighs just 2.72 ounces, a black-and-white warbler a mere quarter or half an ounce—they can fly the length of a continent. And I count them and talk to them while I do so because they have personalities: some species are gregarious (like the pine grosbeaks), others aloof (the brown creeper), some raucous (crows and blue jays) and others genteel (a tree swallow, until you make one mad).

I count birds because knowing them brings me joy.

Try it. (Or count insects or reptiles or amphibians or mammals or starts or anything that moves you. You can even count rain—true, go see what I mean. Whatever you count, do count. The people with PhDs simply cannot do it alone.)

April 7, 2008


  1. Elaine says

    Amen! Hi, Margaret, you said so eloquently what I feel about birds. I counted birds during the Great Backyard Bird Count in February and I have to say that it gave me a wonderful feeling to know that I was participating in a scientific study. I haven’t been doing it formally since, but I do make a mental note of the birds, especially new ones that I see each day. When I go out to put food in the feeders each morning I can hear the excited fluttering of the birds in the bushes and it in turns makes me excited and oh, so very happy. I am with you – I can’t imagine going outside and not seeing the birds, or being able to see them through my windows. I feel absolute joy when I am watering my garden and a hummingbird dances in the spray from the hose! There is no experience like it!

    You have convinced me that I must begin counting and submitting my counts on a monthly basis. I promise I will start doing it today. Thank you, Margaret.

  2. says

    Thank you for becoming number 50,001 to count birds monthly.
    Great that you did the GBBC–that’s the first step, and then you get even more addicted and do PFW (Profect Feeder Watch) from like November to April, and of course the Christmas Bird Count, and then, and then, and then…basically you find yourself on ebird.org.
    I will see you there (and back here, hopefully, too).

  3. elizabeth says

    my mother in law counts water,
    and i love checking the gauge each time i go over.

    ever since i read one of carl klaus’s books, i forget which, i have wanted to count the birds. of course, this requires me to know which bird i spy. now i have a good reason to start learning.

  4. says

    love your mother-in-law anecdote, elizabeth. and let me know which birds you meet. everyone here is in a dither this week, noisy as can be, staking territory and arguing over the best spots in the best trees. a pair of flycatchers (they nest on shelves, not in cavities) decided the back-porch rafters were not good enough this year, their usual haunt, and for 2008 have chosen the spot where the incoming electric and phone wires touch the house, up under the eaves. weird. hope their young don’t come out all screwy from such a birthing place.

  5. says

    Birds also add another dimension to the garden – motion (as do butterflies) and sound – I love listening to their songs. And don’t forget the amazing engineering that goes into building the various nests.

  6. Candace says

    Hi Margaret,
    I have been watching birds since my mother gave me my first Petersen Guide in 1969. I haven’t participated in a bird count in awhile, but used to. I need to get back to it. After work, I sit outside with my binoculars and watch the birds at my birdfeeders and in the garden for hours. I find it a great way to unwind and never tire of their beauty and antics. What a gift to humanity they offer.

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