Huff Post/Audubon: Crowdsourcing Science in Just 15 Minutes

By David Yarnold, President, National Audubon Society — How has the most powerful El Niño in nearly two decades and the extraordinary weather patterns it spawned this winter affected birds?

You can join with tens of thousands of volunteer citizen scientists to help find the answer by spending just 15 minutes in your backyard or neighborhood this weekend during the annual Great Backyard Bird Count.

It’s science crowdsourcing at its best: Grab a pair of binoculars or just head outside and invite your family and friends to help count all the birds you spot within a 15-minute period. No previous experience necessary.

Last year, more than 140,000 citizen participants submitted their bird observations online to, creating the largest instantaneous snapshot of global bird populations ever recorded.

This year’s citizen count is going to be more important to science and conservation efforts than ever. We learned during our earlier citizen science event, the annual Christmas Bird Count, that this year’s record warm winter kept Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes lingering longer in the north. And other birds were showing up far from their usual homes and rest stops.

The Great Backyard Bird Count, held February 12 to 15 at the start of the spring migration season, will help scientists understand even more about the impact a record warm winter and unusually fierce storms are having on where birds are living and migrating.

Audubon – which helped originate science crowdsourcing with its annual Christmas Bird Count 116 years ago–is engaging citizen scientists to change science and conservation as we know it.

The Great Backyard Bird Count, an annual census nearly two decades old, is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society along with Canadian partner Bird Studies Canada.

How can the birds you report seeing in just 15 minutes contribute to science and conservation?

In past years the Great Backyard Bird Count helped track rare influxes of Snowy Owls and the decline (and eventual rebound) of the American Crow population.

But even more vital–each year’s information adds to the data Audubon has been collecting for more than a century and engages new citizen scientists in collecting it. That information is essential to our research in tracking species and learning how they have adapted–or not–to everything from climate change to suburban sprawl.

This research, enhanced by the technology of a smartphone in everybody’s pocket and map-based technologies, is giving conservation groups, government agencies, businesses and private landowners powerful tools for present and future conservation efforts.

Citizen scientists provided invaluable data for Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change report, the largest and most comprehensive study of birds and climate change ever done in North America.

We found that of the 588 species studied, 314 may lose 50 percent or more of their current ranges by 2080 if the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause global warming are not significantly reduced. Those numbers are shocking, and they include some of our most beloved birds like the Common Loon and the Baltimore Oriole.

Birds are giving us clear warnings about the health of our world. And they’re showing us what we need to do to make our communities and our planet safer and healthier for birds and people.

Citizen science is reshaping the climate debate, connecting abstract concepts to what people are witnessing in their backyards.

When people see these changes in person, they get it: climate change is real, it’s local and it has an impact on the wildlife that they care about. That’s when people stop arguing about politics and start talking about nature.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is all about making science more personal.

You can participate from anywhere in the world–not just in the United States–and submit data in English, French, Spanish, Turkish, Mandarin, German, Russian or Portuguese.

Birders from more than 100 countries participated in last year’s count, documenting over 5,000 species–nearly half the total bird species in the world.

The species the most people reported seeing last year? The charismatic Northern Cardinal followed by the Dark-eyed Junco and the Mourning Dove.

Beyond the numbers and the data, it’s a great way for people of all ages and backgrounds to connect with nature and show some love for birds this Valentine’s Day weekend.

You can get all the info you need to join this year’s citizen science team in the Great Backyard Bird Count at

And if you need help identifying the birds you see, you can download the free Audubon Bird Guide App.

David Yarnold is president and CEO of the National Audubon Society.

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