In celebration of National Bird Week, Australia’s largest annual citizen science event has kicked off, running until 25 October.
The Aussie Backyard Bird Count, run by BirdLife Australia, asks participants to count the number of native bird species they see. The data provides an annual snapshot of Australian birds and can then be used to fill the gaps in knowledge about how different species are travelling by observing their numbers and distribution.
“Surprisingly, we actually know very little about how some of our most common garden birds are faring,” says Sean Dooley from BirdLife Australia. “Each survey in the Aussie Bird Count is like a pixel in a larger picture, helping us to see it more clearly.”
This year, researchers are particularly keen to see how our feathered friends have responded following the black summer bushfires.
“This year’s count is going to be even more crucial as we know that bushfires around the country have driven many surviving birds into places they wouldn’t normally be, such as people’s gardens, which are often a welcome patch in a charred or drought-ridden landscape,” says Dooley.
“This year we are expecting there might be a rise in the number of yellow-tailed and glossy black and gang-gang cockatoos, for example, due to them being driven out of their traditional homes by the bushfires.”
To get involved all you need to do is spend 20 minutes in one spot, noting down the birds you see. Unlike the name suggests, you don’t actually have to be in your backyard; you can also head to the park, schoolyard and even the beach.
“We take a very broad view of what constitutes an Aussie backyard!” says Dooley.
“The count covers all of Australia – wherever people live. We get counts coming in from all states (and some of our overseas territories), from areas ranging from the middle of our biggest cities to the middle of the outback.”
The 20-minute time limit is important because it means everyone is counting within the same time window. You can stay in the same location and count for longer – just submit the observations in 20-minute increments.
Once situated in a prime bird-viewing spot, participants are asked to count the number of each species they see. Your best friend in this endeavour is the Aussie Bird Count app, downloadable through links on the Aussie Backyard Bird Count website.
For those who feel a little apprehensive about their ability to identify birds, the app has a field-guide function that allows participants to enter the details of the bird – its shape, size and colour – and let the app make suggestions as to what the species could be. If you can identify a bird by its call you can also include it.
Participants have two options when it comes to submitting results. You can log your observations straight into the Aussie Bird Count app, or jot your notes down in a notebook in the field and then complete the online web form once you’re back at home.
While the project has important implications for conservation efforts, there are also benefits to enjoy closer to home.
Towards the end of a turbulent year of bushfires and COVID-19, the project is the perfect opportunity for everyone to slow down and connect with nature in the comfort of their own backyard.
“The Aussie Backyard Bird Count is a great way to take a break from the anxieties and stresses we’ve all faced this year,” Dooley says.
“We’ve got a number of incredible ambassadors helping us this year – some who are long time bird watchers and others who have picked it up during lockdown. It goes to show anyone can get involved and that now is the perfect time to do so.”
We’re interested in knowing about other citizen science projects. If you know of, or participate in one, let us know by tagging us @cosmosmagazine on Twitter or by emailing us at [email protected]
Amelia Nichele is a science journalist at The Royal Institution of Australia.
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