A count that counts

If you’re reading this article, chances are that you’re an environmentally aware person and have a sense of custodianship over your local environment. Perhaps you regularly volunteer for your local conservation group. Perhaps you want to do more to help the environment but don’t know where to start. Perhaps you want to help the environment but making a start is too much effort given your current work and family commitments. Well, BirdLife Australia’s Aussie Backyard Bird Count is the perfect solution to your volunteer fatigue/uncertainty/lethargy. You could be making a positive contribution to conserving our birdlife without leaving your property. What’s more, collecting the data involves only a bit of fun bird watching. What could be easier?

Superb fairy-wrens are a common sight in many Melbourne gardens. The Aussie Backyard Bird Count will help ensure they stay that way. Image: Rowan Mott

Superb fairy-wrens are a common sight in many Melbourne gardens. The Aussie Backyard Bird Count will help ensure they stay that way. Image: Rowan Mott

There are many positive reasons why you should participate. This is a nation-wide initiative and 2016 will mark the third time this annual event has been run. Large scale programs such as the Aussie Backyard Bird Count are rare when it comes to the collection of biological data. Studies extending across geographical regions and annual timeframes have a much greater capacity to detect environmental changes that would be missed by studies that are site-specific `or focus on a single point in time. You may have read our recent article outlining the valuable insights gained from long term monitoring in the Grampians. Imagine the insights that could be gained if long term data were available at the national scale rather than at a single site. This is what the Aussie Backyard Bird Count promises.

Common blackbirds are an introduced species, but information on where they occur is still valuable for determining the health of Australia’s bird assemblage. Image: Rowan Mott

Common blackbirds are an introduced species, but information on where they occur is still valuable for determining the health of Australia’s bird assemblage. Image: Rowan Mott

A similar program, Garden BirdWatch run by the British Trust for Ornithology, has been instrumental in monitoring the changing fortunes of the humble house sparrow. The UK population of house sparrows has fallen by approximately half in the last four decades. Considering there is estimated to be around 13 million house sparrows in the UK, that’s a lot of birds to have disappeared. However, there is no guarantee that any single study would have been able to detect this decline because the disappearance of sparrows at a single location or a single point in time may have been the result of small scale movements or a local population decline. It is only when the population as a whole is considered that the trend becomes worrying. There is good news for house sparrows, though. Recent data shows that the population appears to have stabilised in recent years thanks to milder winters and a growing number of people providing the resources sparrows need to survive in their backyards. Could you imagine if our very own superb fairy-wren, a bird as familiar to us as the house sparrow is to UK residents, underwent a similar catastrophic decline and we failed to notice? The Aussie Backyard Bird Count will ensure that we are better placed to detect such a change as well as less obvious ones.

If your backyard is full of introduced species, such as common blackbirds, spotted doves and common mynas, and you think that any information you might be able to provide is worthless, think again. Many invasive species may outcompete their native counterparts, and, consequently, monitoring the presence and abundance of introduced species is also valuable for conservation.

Rainbow lorikeets were the most commonly reported bird in last year’s Aussie Backyard Bird Count. Will they be again this year? Image: Rowan Mott

Rainbow lorikeets were the most commonly reported bird in last year’s Aussie Backyard Bird Count. Will they be again this year? Image: Rowan Mott

Think your birding skills aren’t up to the task? Well, what better place to learn than in your own backyard where you’ll be able to hone your skills on a small subset of species. Moreover, these species will likely visit with some regularity, giving you plenty of opportunity to reinforce the important identification features.

If all that wasn’t enough to motivate you to participate, BirdLife Australia is also offering some fantastic prizes, including a top-of-the-range pair of binoculars. So there you have it, you have no excuses! Go to the Aussie Backyard Bird Count website and register as a counter. Then all you have to do is spend 20 minutes in your own backyard watching birds between 17th and 23rd October, record your observations, and sit back and feel the warm glow that comes from knowing you did a good thing for Australia’s birds.


Rowan Mott

Rowan is a PhD student studying seabird ecology. When he's not thinking about the ocean, he likes to think about woodland birds. 

Check him out on Twitter at @roamingmoth