By Tacy Lambiase

blue jay
While usually pretty common on checklists, fewer blue jays were recorded during last year’s bird count. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Northeast Region

The 2013 Great Backyard Bird Count has begun! For 16 years, expert and amateur bird watchers have recorded which species of birds are residing in their neighborhoods during this unique four-day event. And from now until Monday, February 18, you can get involved and try your hand at bird watching, too.

Wildlife observation can not only be fun, but it also helps to keep track of migration patterns and population sizes of various species. As participants record how many of each bird species they encounter, the coordinators and scientists behind the Great Backyard Bird Count begin to get a sense of where certain birds are most likely to be sighted. While past bird counts have only been conducted in the United States, this year’s count is the first time that participants from all over the world are invited to participate and submit data.

“We’re eager to see how many of the world’s 10,240 bird species will be reported during the count this year,” says Cornell Lab director John Fitzpatrick in the release on the event. “We’re looking forward to this historic snapshot of birds that that will be reported from around the world. We need as many people as possible to help build the wealth of data that scientists need to track the health of bird populations through time.”

snowy owl
Last year, bird watchers frequently sighted snowy owls during the Great Backyard Bird Count. Credit: Arjan Haverkamp/Flickr

Although some statistics remain consistent over time, each year’s bird count provides new insights into where different species are living and thriving around the world. For example, according to the 2012 bird count results, participants recorded more snowy owl sightings in the U.S. than in previous years. Normally, an artic-dwelling bird, these owls could have flow farther south last year in search of prey that was in short supply in their native habitat. Other bird species, however, were harder to find in 2012 than in previous years. The number of blue jay sightings was below average, indicating that these birds probably migrated elsewhere in search of food, such as acorns. Therefore, the abundance of trees and nuts in certain habitats can have an effect on the bird populations in the region.

Over the years, American Forests Global ReLeaf has conducted many projects to restore and protect habitat for migratory birds. For instance, in 2012, we planted trees in Arkansas’ Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge to help reforest part of the Mississippi flyway, in Louisiana to connect forest fragments and create wildlife corridors and in Veracruz, Mexico, to restore critical habitat for migratory birds — to just name a few.

Do you want to help the birds in your backyard? Registration for this year’s bird count is free, and all you have to do is create an online account and submit your findings from February 15 to February 18. You can also choose how long and on which days to observe your local birds and are welcome to submit multiple checklists per day. Happy bird counting!

Curious about great places to go bird watching? Check out our feature “Birding in the U.S.”