For the Birds: Count the birds

Photo by Chris Bosak A Carolina wren perches on a branch following a snowfall in New England, Jan. 2022.

Note: This was written for my New Hampshire audience, but the Great Backyard Bird Count applies to all.

I have received a few emails from folks who have seen evening grosbeaks this winter. There have not been many emails regarding pine siskins or purple finches, and not a single one about redpolls.

As had become typical, there have been plenty of emails about Carolina wrens and red-bellied woodpeckers.

The birds mentioned in the first paragraph as known as irruptive species in New England. Some years we see many of them, some years we see a few and some years we don’t see any. The birds in the second paragraph are species that are expanding their range northward and are now fairly common throughout the southern and middle parts of New England.

Anecdotal evidence plays a large role in monitoring bird populations, but a more scientific approach is even better. That is why there are citizen science projects such as the Christmas Bird Count, Great Backyard Bird Count and Project FeederWatch. These massive databases help scientists track bird populations and see which bird species are thriving and which are struggling.

The Great Backyard Bird Count will be held this year from February 17-20. The GBBC is now a global event with hundreds of thousands of birders participating every year. Researchers from National Audubon Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Birds Canada use the checklists to learn about and protect birds. It is free, open to all and requires as much or as little time as one can spare.

While I would encourage everyone to participate in the GBBC, I would also urge New Hampshire residents to take part in the annual NH Audubon Backyard Winter Bird Survey, which takes place this year on February 11 and 12. NH Audubon is a conservation organization independent of the national Audubon Society.

Similar to the national bird surveys, the Backyard Winter Bird Survey helps biologists from the state get an annual snapshot of what birds are in New Hampshire during the winter. For instance, cardinals and titmice are common backyard feeder birds throughout most of New England these days. A relatively short time ago, however, these birds were considered southern birds and rarely seen this far north.

In fact, according to the NH Audubon website, the project was originally the “Cardinal-Tufted Titmouse Census” before being expanded to include more species in 1987. Cardinals and titmice are still fairly rare in northern New Hampshire, but their numbers are increasing there. Surveys like this help monitor those trends.

It is likely that the Carolina wren and red-bellied woodpecker will continue to expand northward and increase their population where they are already established. The Backyard Winter Bird Survey will play a major role in tracking those populations.

But it isn’t all about cardinals, titmice, Carolina wrens and red-bellied woodpeckers. Nor is it only about the irruptive species such as siskins, redpolls and grosbeaks. It’s about all the species you see in your backyard. It may not seem worthwhile to report every chickadee you see, but what if suddenly chickadees started to appear on fewer checklists and in smaller numbers. Biologists would get an early warning that perhaps something is amiss with the chickadee population.

For this survey, backyard birds go beyond the birdfeeder. Any bird flying overhead, swimming in a pond or lurking in the woods should be counted. In general, any bird you can see while standing in our house or on your property may be counted. Use separate forms if you have two properties and count birds from each.

Forms for the survey are available online and results may be submitted online. Find more information about the survey at or by calling (603) 224-9909.

Get those results in, but also let me know if you see anything out of the ordinary.

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