Be Your Own Birder

Your Birding Still Counts If You Don’t Count

There are a lot of “counts” in birding – the Great Backyard Bird Count, Nestwatch, the Christmas Bird Count, Project FeederWatch, the Big Garden Birdwatch, the Global Big Day, the Aussie Backyard Bird Count, the Challenge Count, and many more events all over the world in every season. But what do all these counts do, and what type of birder are you if you don’t join in?

Song Sparrow at the Feeder - Photo by John Brighenti
Song Sparrow at the Feeder – Photo by John Brighenti

About Bird Counts

Different bird counts work in different ways, but in general they all involve counting birds at specific locations (either defined by the event or by each participant) for specific lengths of time on specific dates, which could range from just a few minutes to several hours, a full day, or even more. Some counts have a great deal of flexibility and can be more casually joined, while others are formal surveys with exacting procedures and protocols. The overall goal, however, is to provide a thorough count of local bird populations and to submit that data to a central authority for mass tabulation.

The Benefits of Bird Counts

The sheer amount of data collected during bird count events – lists, totals, and sightings records from thousands, if not tens of thousands, of participants in hundreds or thousands of different locations – can be staggering. But it is exactly that quantity of data that makes these events so very valuable. Because count dates and procedures are well understood, the data adds up to a reasonable snapshot of bird populations at that moment in time. The data from different years can then be compared to show population trends, range shifts, migration patterns, rarity sightings, and more. Altogether, that data helps to support…

  • Conservation of critical habitats in sensitive areas
  • Species-specific conservation initiatives and programs
  • Management of game bird populations in hunting areas
  • Funding for bird and wildlife conservation projects
  • Alerts about dramatic population shifts and drops

Bird counts depend on mass participation to collect enough data to have this type of value. When the data from so many participants is correlated, it can become a fantastic resource for researchers, conservationists, wildlife biologists, bird rehabilitators, land management directors, and more.

No, You DON’T Have to Count

Obviously, participating in bird counts can have great value. As count events have grown at tremendous rates in recent years, thanks to social media and greater online connectivity to share data, there is great pressure in the birding world that you MUST join in. Who wouldn’t want to participate and be part of such a tremendous effort to help birds? If you don’t join in, do you really care about birds at all?

Down Woodpecker - Photo by DaPuglet (Tina)
Downy Woodpecker
Photo by DaPuglet (Tina)

Don’t let anyone bully, coerce, or cajole you into that thinking. We all have our own considerations to make, and a single choice to not participate in an event has nothing to do with the quality or value of your own birding.

I have personally chosen not to participate in the Christmas Bird Count, for example. This is one of the oldest bird count events in the world, collecting data that is used by hundreds of scientists and researchers across the globe. But why haven’t I ever been part of it, spending the day birding for such a worthwhile cause?

  • For a number of years, the only count date available where I lived also happened to be my wedding anniversary.
  • I’m not particularly fond of winter temperatures and have extremely high sensitivity to cold – painfully so.
  • The holiday period is already crazy, making it hard to carve out a day from family time and seasonal preparations.
  • I don’t necessarily agree with all the politics or procedures from the count organization and its superstructure.

These are just my own reasons; many other birders may have health or budgetary concerns that interfere with their participation in counts, work or other obligations that take up that time, they may prefer just to enjoy their own backyard birds, they may not be familiar with the technology necessary to report count totals, or, quite frankly, they may just not be interested in the event. That’s all perfectly fine.

Your Birding Still Counts

Be Your Own Birder was hatched in part from the frustration of being told I wasn’t the right kind of birder. I tend to be easygoing, and in a world that takes offense at just about everything so easily these days, I’m prefer a live-and-let-live approach. But it is offensive to me to be told that I’m not a good birder because I don’t participate in bird counts.

I offer good food at clean feeders, have multiple water sources in my yard, avoid pesticide use, and plant bird-friendly landscaping. I own dozens of field guides and other birding books, enjoy bird-themed crafts, occasionally wear bird-themed shirts, and have bird nest earrings. I enjoy every bird I see, occasionally chase for specific birds, and delight in even the common visitors I find. I write bird articles for different clients, offer a free bird identification service, and have published a book about bird migration. But because I don’t “count” my birding isn’t supposed to count.

To that, I say a resounding NO. All birders make valuable contributions to birds, even if it is just filling a single feeder, putting up one lone bird house, or visiting one park, preserve, or nature center. The Universal Truths of Birding are all that make someone a birder, and there is great leeway for each one as to how a birder might meet, enjoy, or display that truth.

Ultimately, what is the most true of all is that we’re all birders, and just like the birds we enjoy, we all matter. You count, whether you “count” or not.

Bohemian Waxwing Flock - Photo by Bruce Guenter
Bohemian Waxwing Flock – Photo by Bruce Guenter

10 thoughts on “Your Birding Still Counts If You Don’t Count

  1. Vicki Rogerson

    Coerce, cajole, bully? You are hanging out with the wrong birders. I think the only rule to being a birder is doing no harm to the birds. I personally love eBird for a variety of reasons, and I like doing eBird lists. I like being a part of the CBC, and other counts. I want everyone to be invited and welcomed to all of these events, and field trips, and everything bird. I’m more worried about people not feeling welcome. You are a birder if you seek out birds in whatever way makes sense to you. There is no birder contest. The reward is the great joy in seeing birds- list/don’t list, count/don’t count- makes no difference. Of course, you are a good birder!!!

    1. Mayntz Post author

      Very good points, Vicki! Unfortunately, it can take just one bad experience to turn someone off birding, and we have to take great care not to be that bad experience, even on our worst days, and to be welcoming is absolutely the key. I find the social media marketing from different organizations (official as well as unofficial) to be extremely pushy at times for counts, donations, and all these things you “should” be doing. But all you should be doing is enjoying birds!

      1. Vicki Rogerson

        There is a surprising amount going on in the birding world, and I get bombarded, too. As a long time volunteer in the school system, and for Audubon- I think the smartest thing is for people to just do (or not) the things that really attract them. There are so many areas of interest to choose from if someone wants to do more. I can’t believe anyone thinks YOU should do more, Melissa. When? You do such an incredible job with your blog, books, and writing projects. I guess we are lucky to have so many options for getting more involved, and I’m so sorry when people or organizations get overzealous, and create the opposite of what they want.

  2. Celina Burback

    I don’t participate in many of the counts where you have to walk- due to some disabilities I have that make that extremely hard for me. I end up feeling like I’m dragging the group behind, or being a burden. So I no longer attend any kind of birding groups. I love using eBird and do so whenever I can, usually in my backyard where I can sit, so this year I have been doing FeederWatch.

    1. Vicki Rogerson

      Hi Celina, I think it’s great to let others know that there are a million ways to bird. When I do CBC, my part is by car or bike. I have bad knees, and I pretty much only bird by car or bike. When I do an eBird list I try to mention in comments- bird by bike or car. I love wildlife drives where you can go slow, stop when you want… I would hate to think of someone who wanted to go birding feeling like they couldn’t. While I can’t do the big group hikes, I can do plenty of birding in my own way. During last spring migration I called myself a parking lot birder because it seemed like I was birding a lot of parking lots! Happy birding to you!

      1. Mayntz Post author

        I’ve gotten some of my best birds in parking lots! A few years ago, I got a northern pygmy-owl just 15 yards from my car – in the OPPOSITE direction of where I’d been hiking for over an hour trying to find the little bugger! The whole time he was probably watching and laughing at me. I should have stuck around the parking lot a bit more…

    2. Mayntz Post author

      It’s wonderful that you’re finding your own way of birding Celina! What you’re doing is amazing, and I’m sure your backyard birds love everything you do for them. You’re a great birder!

  3. Michelle

    My problem with bird counts is that I am not in the least bit certain of their accuracy. I was out with a fellow bird and we saw a field full of snow geese. He said, without making any attempt to count, that there were ten thousand geese. When I asked him how he knew, he said, rather haughtily, “experience.” I was once in the middle of a storm of sooty shearwaters. How on earth could I be expected to be accurate? Other birders said “a million.” Were there a million? Why not 100,000? 500,000? I know that every morning there are twenty Mourning Doves on my lawn this winter and eight Varied Thrushes. I know this because I’ve been counting them every day, and there are individual differences in the birds that I have come to recognize. How many times are birds counted as more than one individual?

    1. Mayntz Post author

      Excellent point, Michelle! There are different ways to estimate birds, of course, but pinpoint accuracy in very large flocks simply stumps me as well.

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