Thursday, May 26, 2022
May 26, 2022

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Backyard bird count alights in Clark County

Observations can shed light if stay-home orders affected avians

By , Columbian staff writer
8 Photos
Veteran birder Susan Setterberg keeps an eye out for feathered friends as they fly near her backyard at her Ridgefield home Thursday morning. She will join the Great Backyard Bird Count this weekend.
Veteran birder Susan Setterberg keeps an eye out for feathered friends as they fly near her backyard at her Ridgefield home Thursday morning. She will join the Great Backyard Bird Count this weekend. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Has a whole year of reduced noise, reduced pollution, reduced driving and flying been good for bird life?

Now is your chance to help scientists find out. The Great Backyard Bird Count, a worldwide effort to observe birds everywhere and send the data to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is set for Friday through Monday.

The count is a call for bird lovers to participate in a grassroots bird census. Participation couldn’t be easier. Just look out for birds and note your observations for at least 15 minutes at least once during the four-day event from the comfort of your very own nest.

“One of the most fun things is to start to notice the birds’ behaviors,” said longtime birder Susan Setterberg.

She moved to Ridgefield a few years ago because she wanted to spend her retirement years near a wildlife refuge. But the landscape in her new development was pretty raw and bird visits were rare, so she immediately started setting up feeders near her big picture windows.

Now she’s fascinated by annual variations in her backyard observations, like this year’s huge “irruption” (explosive growth) in numbers of pine siskins. That’s a small finch that Setterberg usually spots in the single digits. This year, with northern forests underproducing the seeds and other foods pine siskins like, the birds have wandered south. Setterberg said she has counted an astonishing 237 pine siskins at her feeders so far this winter.

The mass pine siskin visitation has also attracted a lot of hungry hawks, Setterberg added. The whole dramatic scenario has turned Setterberg’s 7-year-old neighbor boy into a fellow birder.

“He gets so excited,” she said.

Home, park, anywhere

Are you excited too?

To participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count, visit and check out the two recommended smartphone birding apps, Merlin Bird ID and eBird Mobile. You can also use your laptop. Depending on the app, you’ll be provided likely bird checklists based on your location, and asked questions that help identify the birds you’re watching.

You don’t have to stay in your own backyard, by the way. If you do venture forth, make sure to follow all pandemic protocols regarding masking up and keeping your distance from other people — not to mention the birds, of course.

“Originally this event started with counting birds at backyard feeders, but now it’s gone all over the world and you can do it anywhere you like,” Setterberg said. “You can go to your favorite park.”

Setterberg, a volunteer at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, said she’ll spend one day of the bird count watching a feeder she got permission to set up near the refuge’s River S Unit entrance. She’ll clean it and stock it the day before, she said. Then she’ll settle in to watch the show.

‘Staggering’ data

Global and local participation in the annual Backyard Bird Count has taken off in recent years. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, birders worldwide submitted almost 250,000 checklists in the 2020 count. Washington came in ninth in the nation in the number of checklists submitted, at 6,255. Those numbers are both big jumps from the previous year, according to Cornell.

There may be more bird lovers in the world now, but the data they’ve gathered is not encouraging. After crunching the bird census numbers in 2019, the Cornell Lab put out a grave report about birds dying off worldwide at a “staggering” rate, including a reduction in North America alone of nearly 3 billion adult birds since 1970.

It’s too soon to say whether a year of clearer skies and less disturbance to nature will make any difference, Setterberg said.

“It is not an easy question to answer, as there are too many variables,” she said in an email. “From year to year, weather can have an impact, as can overall abundance of food away from the feeders. To determine if pollution decline has had an impact, you would probably need a study done over a longer period of time to see if any bird population variation is attributable to this year’s decrease in some pollutants.”

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