Calling All Backyard Bird Counters

Survey invites amateur birdwatchers to record their sighting online

Joe Hawkins will be scanning birds this weekend from his kitchen window. He'll be in the company of thousands of others.

Birders from Goosetown, Wis., to Pigeon Creek, Ala., are expected to flock to the same Internet site (birdsource.cornell.edu) as part of a unique survey.

From observations at backyard bird feeders, participants will log their sitings there on Feb 20, 21, and 22. Mr. Hawkins plans to spend a "few hours" each of the three days watching birds for the program.

Bird lovers without bird feeders can scan for feathered critters at a local park, say the sponsors of the open-to-all BirdSource Great '98 Backyard Bird Count. It is sponsored by the National Audubon Society and the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology (CLO).

The project stands out for one big reason: It uses the Internet to get the public involved and doesn't rely exclusively on scientists. Participants will have to note the maximum number of birds sighted at one time, say over a two-hour period.

In the long term, the information posted at the Web site will help ornithologists track fluctuations in populations and record any unusual flight patterns.

The state-of-the-art technology is powerful enough to take 12,000 simultaneous hits without clogging. And the data will be updated by the minute. "Watching the [bird] count results," CLO director John Fitzpatrick says, "will be like watching election returns from across the country on your own computer screen."

Until now, bird counting has had a long but elitist history. Henry David Thoreau observed on Nov. 30, 1857: "The air is full of geese. I saw five flocks within an hour, about 10 a.m., containing from thirty to fifty each, and afterward two more flocks making in all from two hundred and fifty to three hundred at least, all flying southeast over Goose and Walden Ponds. The former was apparently well named Goose Pond."

Not everyone, however, is as thorough a naturalist as Thoreau. Some might find it difficult to identify different species of birds.

To avoid this problem, the BirdSource site provides pictures and drawings of various birds to make it easy for amateur eyes.

This weekend's count is part of a bigger CLO project that will create a national archive on bird populations. Information from existing data will be logged into computers at Cornell.

One major source will be the annual Christmas Count by the National Audubon Society, which has kept track of changing bird populations in different but limited sectors across America for almost 100 years.

"All these findings will eventually become a sensitive indicator of change in time," says Mr. Fitzpatrick. "We can see birds moving [on the computer screens] just the way we can see weather moving [on the television news]."

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