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Help Scientists by Counting Birds

Updated on July 22, 2015

Why bird counting is important

Birds are sensitive to environmental changes and activities, so they make an excellent subject for scientists to study. By observing and counting them, scientists can see the effects of climate change, environmental imbalance, or overuse of pesticides. Recently, I went on a shorebird count that was important because scientists were trying to determine if climate change in the most northern regions of North America were affecting the birds who nest there. Their nesting sites were too remote to monitor, so they were counting the shorebirds in their winter locations. Another example is the possible irruption of snowy owls further south than their normal range. Bird numbers increase or decrease based on certain environmental factors. It's even theorized that the passenger pigeon's massively large population in the 1800s was due to the European-American interference in the environment where they lived.

All photos on this lens were taken by me or by someone with my camera directed by me unless otherwise noted.

Me using a scope (taken by a friend using my camera)
Me using a scope (taken by a friend using my camera)

Things you need for counting birds

There are some helpful tools for counting birds.

Field Guide Everyone needs a good field guide even if you're just counting birds at your feeder. There are many electronic field guides complete with sounds and maps that make bird identifying more accurate. A good field guide will have pictures of birds in their breeding and non-breeding plumage as well as a range map.

Binoculars or Scope. If you plan to bird outside your home, a good set of optics is critical. Most birds are not going to let you get close enough to see the fine detail that might distinguish one species from another. Some species are easy to discern without optics, but many of them look similar that optics are critical. For example, many North American sparrows and shorebirds look very similar and it's the small differences that set them apart. Scopes are particularly useful if you are counting birds like shorebirds who tend to feed in wide-open mud flats and look extremely similar in the winter. Scopes can be bulky to carry around and are not often useful when hiking long distances. Binoculars are more portable. Best size for birdwatching is 8 x 42.

Camera with zoom lens If you have a scope, you can get a piece that will let you use it as a camera lens. Otherwise, you will need a good camera with a zoom lens. While having a camera is not absolutely essential, it is helpful when you want to prove to scientists that you did observe a rare bird in your location.

Notebook or clip-board A small notebook or clipboard is very useful when counting birds to keep track of which ones were sighted. I use the one listed in the Cafepress section below. I painted a picture of an Eskimo curlew on it. It's also great for making drawings, too. The only drawback is that I have a hard time putting it in my pocket.

Counting Supplies

The Sibley Guide to Birds
The Sibley Guide to Birds

I use the western guide. It's good because it shows all the different plumages. However, if you want real photographs, this won't help.

Nikon 7216 Action 8x40 Binocular
Nikon 7216 Action 8x40 Binocular

8x40 is a great size for binoculars. Focus tends to get less sharp past 8x and the 40 makes it easier to follow birds in flight.


Crossley ID Guides

I happened to view the Crossley ID Guide for Raptors at a bird festival and I found it to be a fun guide to learn how to identify birds. This is perfect for a beginner and even has "Mystery Pages" where you are shown similar species in various poses and quizzed on which bird is which. The pages have wonderful and fun illustrations. There's also a guide to Eastern birds as well.

Crossley guides are the newest on the market and are started to be accepted even by non-beginners. They can also be fun to use.

The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors (The Crossley ID Guides)
The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors (The Crossley ID Guides)

Wonderful illustrated guide, great for beginners.

California gnatcatcher
California gnatcatcher | Source

Do you have any bird counting equipment or supplies? If so, check out the poll below.

By the way, this is a California gnatcatcher that I took a photo of with my 70-300mm lens like the one listed in the module above.

Do you have any bird counting supplies?

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Have an area where you regularly count birds so that you get to know what's normally there and what's unusual.

Out on a bird walk
Out on a bird walk | Source

How to count birds

Bird counting sounds very easy, you just count the birds you see, right? Well, if you really want to know how many and what types of birds are around, there's a way to go about it. For example, most birds in urban parks and neighborhoods hide or are inactive in the middle of the day, especially during very warm or very cold days. The best time to count birds is usually right before or right after dawn. Birds usually go down to a water or food source to eat or drink at this time. Evenings are probably the next best time because many birds will gather in one area, especially social birds, before they go to roost. Also, they may go get that last drink of water at that time.

A good way to get the most out of your bird counts is to have an area where you regularly count. That way you get to know what kinds of birds are supposed to be there and notice if something is unusual. It's also interesting to see how the types and numbers of birds change throughout the seasons as they come and go from migration. Pick an area that has a lot of birds common to your region and try to do a count at least once a month going over the same area and distance. Try to learn to identify a new species each time you do a comprehensive count.

Another way to learn how to identify birds in an area is to go on walks put on by various groups and organizations at your local estuaries. Start with your local Audubon Society as they often have tours and activities almost every weekend with experienced birders. Often they will notice and identify birds you may not have noticed if you were on your own. You do not need to be an Audubon member to go on one of their walks. Try a variety of locations with different leaders and some may be more knowledgeable about the birds than others.

Turkey Vulture
Turkey Vulture | Source

How many birds did you count last time you counted?

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Coot Family
Coot Family | Source

Where to report your sightings

There are various ways to report your bird sightings, here are a few of the most common places:

eBird This is the most common place nowadays to report bird sightings. It's very easy, just go to, create an account, put in your location and check off the number of each species you see or hear. You can count any time of day or night at any location. If you can't identify all the birds you see or hear, that's OK, they don't expect you to know all of them. There are general categories you can check off (for example, you see some gulls, but can't make out what kind they are, you can just count them and put the number under the generic "gull" spot on the form). If you mention something that's not supposed to be in the area, an expert volunteer will contact you to confirm your sighting. You can also put a photo in your counts or send it to the eBird auditor when contacted (this is where a camera is very useful). They sometimes will be helpful and give you suggestions on field guides and tell you what birds are common in your area.

Christmas Bird Count This is a large scale operation that takes place around Christmas through New-Year's Day. It is very organized and birds are only counted in certain areas. Most people will be put into teams of two or three to count a section of a 15 mile wide circle. Then, participants meet at the end for a picnic and submit their counts. Starting in 2012, participating in the count is FREE (it used to count $5 for the booklet which will now be digitally available)! Contact your local Audubon Society around December to find out when and where the Christmas bird count will be this year and who the local compiler is.

Great Backyard Bird Count This takes place in February of each year. For 2013, the dates are February 15th through February 18th.. You can count anywhere and any time you want as long as it's between those dates and for at least 15 minutes. Raffles will be held for prizes for registered participants in the end. The cost is free. Visit: for more details and instructions. You can also report the same findings to eBird.

List servers There are many birding groups online where you can list your sightings, especially rare sightings. Many of these groups are on Yahoo and cover certain regions or counties all over the United States. There may be other servers that like to hear about bird counts and sightings in other areas.

Project Feederwatch This is a project headed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that focuses on birds that visit feeders. If you are someone who can't do much walking, but can keep a feeder at home, this project may be for you. They will even send you a calendar with the dates that you need to watch your feeders and submit your data on it. Visit: for more details.

So, what kinds of birds have you seen lately? Seen anything unusual?

Talk about your birding adventures!

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    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      You're welcome. I'm happy to point it out to you to fix.

    • Shorebirdie profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from San Diego, CA

      Thanks, I will do that. I've noticed that a lot of my hubs have lost formatting lately. I don't know if it happened when they transferred over from Squidoo or after that. I've only noticed it in the last month or two and not just on this hub.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Shorebirdie, this was an interesting hub for sure. It reminds me of the New Jersey Shore from my childhood past. One tip for you: you should bold e-bird and field guide and other paragraph headers to make it stand out from the capsules for easy reading. Voted up!

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Sometimes I've seen some big birds I don't what it is, because they fly so quick with wide wings and they always fly in group.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I haven't actually participated in any counts, but I do enjoy watching birds that come to my yard.

    • orange3 lm profile image

      orange3 lm 

      6 years ago

      I didn't know about eBird - thanks! I'm going to check into it :)

    • DelightfulDanie profile image


      6 years ago

      I have done something like this with my girl scout troop!

    • TonyPayne profile image

      Tony Payne 

      6 years ago from Southampton, UK

      Mostly we just enjoy watching the birds in our garden, and there are quite a few families who come to visit or who nest in the trees there. We also like going to the local marshes and watching the birds while we take a walk, but we haven't really participated in any counts.

    • flycatcherrr profile image


      7 years ago

      Nothing unusual that I've spotted, but I have noticed in recent years that the numbers are changing - some birds more common, some more rare than it used to be - and the dates of spring arrival and fall migration do seem to be shifting a bit. I'm just a tiny bit too far north and at a tiny bit too high an elevation for cardinals to breed, and those are birds I long to see at my feeder as regular visitors - but at the rate things are going (climate change?), well, it may only be a matter of time!


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