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In Wild Winter, Citizen Scientists See Where and Why Birds Traveled


Released: 3/22/2012 12:15 PM EDT 
Source: Cornell University


Newswise — When bird watchers joined this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count, they recorded the most unusual winter for birds in the count’s 15-year history. With 17.4 million bird observations on 104,000 checklists, this was the most detailed four-day snapshot ever recorded for birdlife in the U.S. and Canada. Participants reported 623 species, during Feb. 17–20, including an influx of Snowy Owls from the arctic, early-migrating Sandhill Cranes, and Belted Kingfishers in northern areas that might normally be frozen over.

“The maps on the GBBC website this year are absolutely stunning,” said John Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Every bird species has a captivating story to tell, and we’re certainly seeing many of them in larger numbers farther north than usual, no doubt because of this winter’s record-breaking mild conditions.”

Ironically, a few arctic species also moved farther south than usual as well. Participants recorded Snowy Owl sightings in record-breaking numbers throughout the Great Plains and Pacific Northwest of the United States. Canadian bird watchers saw four times the number of Snowy Owls they reported to the count last year. Experts believe that Snowy Owls move south from their usual arctic habitats in years when prey, such as lemmings, are scarce.

Warmer weather and lack of snow and ice in some regions set the stage for other spectacles, including more than 2 million Snow Geese reported on two counts at Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, Missouri. In Ruskin, Florida, participants reported more than 1 million Tree Swallows, vaulting this species to the GBBC top-10 list of the most numerous birds for the first time ever.

Some northern locations recorded high numbers of waterbirds such as Mallards, Ring-necked Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, and American Coots, that either never left or came back early to lakes, rivers, and ponds that remained unfrozen.

“Citizen scientists are helping us document changes to birds, starting in our own backyards, which is also where the solution begins,” said Audubon chief scientist Gary Langham. "My preschool-age daughter came out with me to count birds in the yard and around the neighborhood -- we're still talking about the experience weeks later."

To find out more about these and other trends from the 2012 count, visit To report bird sightings all year, visit

The GBBC is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, with Canadian partner Bird Studies Canada. The event is sponsored in part by Wild Birds Unlimited.

Top 10 birds reported on the most checklists in the 2012 GBBC:

1) Northern Cardinal 
2) Mourning Dove
3) Dark-eyed Junco
4) Downy Woodpecker
5) American Crow
6) House Finch
7) American Goldfinch
8) Blue Jay
9) Black-capped Chickadee
10) Tufted Titmouse

Media Note: Go to the “Explore the Results” pages on the GBBC web site at to find the list of Top 10 birds reported in your state, province, or city.