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‘For the love of birds’: the Great Backyard Bird Count and beyond

A blue bird feeder hangs covered in snow - next to it hands a green suet feeder. A red-bellied woodpecker with a black and white striped back and red mullet hang off of the suet feeder.
Rebecca Smith
A red-bellied woodpecker hangs onto a snowy suet feeder in Columbia, Missouri, on January 9, 2024.

The annual Great Backyard Bird Count is happening now and will continue all weekend – through Monday, February 19th. This is a global event where people are asked to go outside in their community, look and listen for birds, and submit their data to the eBird database.

KBIA’s Rebecca Smith sat down with Laura Semken from the Missouri River Bird Observatory in Arrow Rockto learn more about the event and about how you can engage with the local bird population.

Rebecca Smith: Tell me, you know, what your favorite bird is?

Laura Semken: You’re asking a total bird nerd what her favorite bird is – you have to like select from, like different types – like if you were to ask me, my favorite raptor, you know, it gets a little tricky. It's also seasonal, it could be weekly. I don't know if I can answer that question.

Rebecca Smith: I think that's like the perfect answer, though, because it really is. It’s so dependent.

Laura Semken: Okay. All right. Alright.

Rebecca Smith: So, what is the Great Backyard Bird Count?

Laura Semken: The Great Backyard Bird Count is something that's done through Audubon, and its global. So, the entire world comes together for the love of birds and the count is held every year for four days in February.

Basically, you go out, you count birds for 15 minutes or more for one day, or all four days, and you keep track of those birds on a bird list. And this data, this snapshot of birds that have been seen and heard all over the world, can really help scientists better understand and protect birds.

Once you count the birds, you have to, of course, submit your data. There's a platform for that called All About Birds with the Cornell Bird Lab, you can also go to eBird, or you can make it super simple andjust go to birdcount.org.

Rebecca Smith: So, you mentioned that this is helping scientist understand and protect bird species, but could you talk a little bit about why a citizen scientist effort like this is important and how that data, you know, does allow researchers to understand those bird populations and changes over time?

Laura Semken: Sure. So, I'm basically just getting a snapshot of what is there, what is present over time – usually data has to be collected for at least 10 years to really start being able to pull out any type of, you know, information that can be used to maybe answer questions like: Are birds moving? Are they still using the same habitat? Are they using a different habitat? How resilient are they? If a bird is there one year and it's not there the next year? So, you have – presence and absence can tell us something also.

It's also important just to keep common birds common. Even our woodland birds have declined a fair amount in the last 30 years. I don't have numbers memorized. I'm a terrible numbers person. But I think it's more than 20% that they've declined, and our grassland birds have declined up to 70%. Those of us who love birds are a little worried – to put it mildly, and the more we can count, the more we can know.

Rebecca Smith: The final thing, you know, I wanted to ask you about today is if for some reason they can't participate in this year's Backyard Bird Count. What would you want people to know about what they can do for Missouri bird populations?

Laura Semken: There's lots of ways to get involved. I think the number one thing you can do to help birds is to plant native plants – plant an oak tree, find some native flowers that you like seeing bloom and plant those – because those plants support the food that the birds need in order to survive. We have to provide more habitat for birds in order to make it work for the birds and for everything.

Local events this weekend

Provided by Laura Semken
Missouri River Bird Observatory

The Columbia Audubon Society will be hosting their annual Bird Feeder Crawl tomorrow as a part of the larger event.

Eric Wood, the organizer of the Crawl said attendees are asked to meet at Songbird Station on Chapel Plaza Court at 9:00 a.m.

“We jump into other people’s cars and caravan to different people’s houses to see what their bird setup is,” Wood said. 

He added that participants of all ages are welcome. They will go and count birds at several houses in the area, as well as the local Missouri Department of Conservation office – before heading back to Songbird Station for coffee and donuts.

In Arrow Rock, the Missouri River Bird Observatory is hosting an All About Birds Family Fun Day.

Laura Semken is the educator coordinator for the Observatory, and said their event will include a bird hike through Arrow Rock, coloring pictures of different birds, making edible wildlife dough animals and more.

“What this event is about is getting people connected and having fun with learning about birds, maybe discovering ways that they can make things to help birds and answer questions,” Semken said. 

The event will be from 10 a.m. to noon – beginning at the Arrow Rock Visitor Center and ending at the Missouri River Bird Observatory’s “BirdHouse” on main street.

You can find more local birding events –here.

Rebecca Smith is an award-winning reporter and producer for the KBIA Health & Wealth Desk. Born and raised outside of Rolla, Missouri, she has a passion for diving into often overlooked issues that affect the rural populations of her state – especially stories that broaden people’s perception of “rural” life.
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