Signs of Winter 9: More Birds!

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

We are coming up on a very exciting, four-day weekend! (Come to think of it: what four-day weekend is not exciting?) From Friday, February 17 to Monday, February 20, birders and bird enthusiasts from over 130 countries will be participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). The count is sponsored by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada and is intended to be a “citizen scientist” assessment of bird populations from all over the world. Last year 162,052 check lists were submitted by participating counters, 5689 species were identified, and a total of 18,637,974 birds were counted. Pennsylvania had 8705 checklists submitted (second only to California among the U.S. states!), and several regular readers of this blog finished high on the list rankings of both Allegheny and Armstrong Counties! Check out the web site ( to see more!

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

This world wide count of birds began in 1998, and it has grown in scope and in participation with each passing year. Participants are asked to spend fifteen minutes either stationary at some observation point or walking through a habitat counting and identifying the birds they see. On-line checklists developed by eBird facilitate the reporting of these observations, and the compilation of the data from the observers seems to be nearly instantaneous!

The 2016 GBBC generated some interesting observations:

  1. Three Mexican and Central American thrushes (relatives of our very familiar American robin), the white-throated thrush, the rufous-backed robin, and the clay-colored thrush, were counted along with several other Central American bird species up in the continental United States. The speculation is that these birds are moving northward in response to the warming trend generated by climate change.
  2. Common redpolls (a northern finch species) were seen in regions far to the south both in 2015 and in 2016. The areas of their occurrence, though, were quite different. In 2015, the redpolls were primarily seen in the northeastern states of the U.S., while in 2016 they were seen in the northwestern states of the U.S. The reason for this shift from eastern to more western sites is not clear.
  3. Snowy owls continue to range southward all across the continental U.S. Increased summer prey in their arctic summer ranges (due to warmer temperatures?) apparently has caused a population explosion in this extreme northern species. In the winter, when prey is scarce, many snowy owls (especially young individuals?) have to make long southerly migrations in order to find food and avoid intense, intra-specific competition.
  4. The redwing (a European relative of the American robin) was seen in Nova Scotia and British Columbia. The British Columbian bird was thought to have been pushed over to Canada from Siberia by strong, El Nino powered winds! Another reflection in the GBBC of the impact of climate fluctuations on bird populations!
Photo by D, Daniels Wikimedia Commons

Photo by D, Daniels Wikimedia Commons

Also, the pine siskins which were seen abundantly in 2015 checklists throughout the northern U.S. were only rarely seen in 2016. Possibly the reduced intensity of the 2016 winter allowed these very northern birds to remain in their preferred northern, coniferous habitats.

So what is accomplished by this Great Backyard Bird Count? Tracking the pine siskins is interesting. Tracking the southward eruption of the snowy owls is exciting (check out the website!), and just knowing how many birds are out in our wide ranging habitats is important. But, maybe most important is getting all of these people outside all at once to look at birds! That is the payoff that is priceless!

Photo by D. Sillman

Public domain photo 

The species that I counted for my 2016 Great Backyard Bird Count lists were as common as could be and included all of the top ten “most frequently listed” species from the study. I saw dark-eyed juncos (reported on 63, 110 checklists), northern cardinals (on 62,323 lists), mourning doves (on 49,630 lists), downy woodpeckers (on 47,393 lists), blue jays (on 45,383 lists), American goldfinches (on 43,204 lists), house finches (on 41,667 lists), tufted titmice (on 38,130 lists), black-capped chickadees (on 37,923 lists) and the American crow (on 37,277 lists). My birding experience does not range into wild, exotic discoveries. I was very happy to see my cardinals, juncos, blue jays, titmice, chickadees, and crows!

Some years ago I was giving a talk at a conference about Deborah’s and my Virtual Nature Trail and the actual, physical nature trail on our campus that was the inspiration for it. At the end of my presentation I was asked a question, “what is special, or unique about this nature trail?” I sensed an undertone to the question of “why would anyone want to go see this trail?” Usually you come up with answers to questions like this much later, but somehow I found the answer right away: There is nothing particularly unique or “special” about this trail, and this is what made it so important. It is the beauty in the ordinary, as Bill Bryson once put it “the low level ecstasy” of the common species and common terrain that make this site so wonderful. Sitting back and seeing what is around you in nature always elevates and inspires you!

And, to me, this is what makes the Great Backyard Bird Count and the sight of all of those ordinary birds that every day gobble down my sunflower seeds, corn, peanuts and thistle, so amazing.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Another very interesting idea about birds and bird species was described late last year in a paper published in the journal PLOS ONE (November 23, 2016). Ornithologists at the American Museum of Natural History looked at the morphological and genetic characteristics of a sampling of bird species and determined that conventional methods of defining avian species were greatly underestimating the total number of species! Instead of the currently accepted 9000 or so species of birds, this group proposes that there are, in fact, 18,000 bird species. They came to this conclusion by utilizing an evolutionary species concept rather than the currently applied biological (or ecological) species concept. The evolutionary concept of a species describes distinct lineages of gene flow rather than the ecological occurrence of an interbreeding (or potentially interbreeding) population. One of the co-authors on this paper referred to the biological concept of a species (a traditional definition in most biological educations!) as “an outdated point of view.”

I am happy to be outdated on this subject as long as we can keep talking about birds!

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2 Responses to Signs of Winter 9: More Birds!

  1. Dee O'Hara says:

    Good to see you are revitalizing your blog.

  2. Patrick Kopnicky says:


    Educational and entertaining as usual and I’m forwarding this to our Friends of Harrison Hills members to emphasize our GBBC program on Feb. 18 morning and afternoon sessions starting at the Environmental Learning Center. Love Bill Bryson’s quote on “Low level ecstasy”.

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