Count Birds for Science!

Big Idea:
Your data about birds and their habitat is important and can help scientists understand the ecology of bird populations in your area and throughout the world.

Learning Objectives:
  1. Students will be able to define "citizen science."
  2. Students will be able to describe why scientists count birds.
  3. Students will be able to identify at least five local birds.
  4. Students will be able to demonstrate the ability to collect and organize data during a local bird count.

Time Needed:
45 minute period outdoors, plus 10-30 minutes/day in the future, to regularly count birds.

Ideally teachers and students will have some knowledge of bird identification before beginning citizen science. The take home message is not bird identification, but that everyone can help through citizen science. Do not get bogged down in teaching your students bird identification, but rather emphasize that their observations about the natural world are valuable. Citizen scientists should be confident about the observations they report, even if they only know 5 species. There are a wide range of citizen scientist projects and activities for teachers to choose from based on their interests and knowledge of bird identification.

  • Bird Watch Report (Journal Page 8)
  • Cornell Lab of Ornithology Citizen Science brochures (included in the mailing)
  • Celebrate Urban Birds kit (included in the mailing)
  • Clipboard and pencils
  • Watch to time counts
  • Stopwatch (included in mailing)
  • Citizen Scientist Brochures
  • Celebrate Urban Birds Kit
  • Class set of binoculars (optional)
  • Optional: BirdSleuth Game cards, Pocket Naturalist guides (for purchase from BirdSleuth), or field guides

Getting Ready:
In order to be a citizen scientist, you’ll have to pick a project! Check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Citizen Science brochures (included in the mailing) to learn about your choices. We've included a Celebrate Urban Birds kit in your mailing--this easy-to-use project is highly recommended. We also recommend eBird as a free project that collects data on all birds and can be done anywhere. Register with one of the programs to get started. Read the project website carefully to make sure you’re ready to start a given project. Use the bird poster, or make a PowerPoint presentation to present the most common birds in your area. Keep these handy and put up bird posters to help your students identify your local birds!

Conducting the Activity:
1. Introduce Citizen Science
Start a conversation about what you have learned about birds so far. Ask,
  • Think about what you know about birds. How do you learn about birds? (Some students may have parents or teachers that are birders, others may watch Animal Planet or the Discovery Channel. Others may have a bird feeder or yard where they occasionally watch birds. Many skilled bird watchers learn one bird at a time. If you see something that interests you, research it!)
  • How do you think scientists learn about birds? (You may wish to introduce the word ORNITHOLOGY. Ornithology is the study of birds. Many ornithologist learn about birds through observation and research.)
  • What other kinds of people know a lot about birds, even if there not research scientists? (Vets, zookeepers, bird feeder watchers, hikers)
  • What can we learn by studying/counting birds on our school campus or at a nearby nature area? (You can look at how your local birds are doing compared to other areas/schools. Students can start to look at how different types of habitat attract which species. By adding what you know to the wiki, students can compare what they are seeing.)
  • Why is it important to study birds and know which ones are on our campus? (Birds are bio-indicators, in the sense that their populations can reflect the overall health of the environment. Healthy, stable bird populations are supported by healthy and stable environments.)

Introduce citizen science by showing the video (You can be a Citizen Scientist) Ask the students about collecting data:
  • How should we make observations about birds? What should we look for? (Species, number, habitat, behavior, diet, reproduction, and songs are just some categories of observations that can be made about birds.)
  • What could a scientist do if he or she wanted to know about the birds found in your area? Should s/he come to visit? Is there someone s/he could ask for the information instead of traveling there in person? (Accurate science often means having as many data sets as possible. Citizen Science allows scientists to feasibly generate these large data sets without traveling to each location in person. Many scientists come up with standardized surveys for people to complete.)
  • Have you heard of citizen science? What do you think it means?

Introduce the Citizen Science project you chose to participate in. If you chose "Celebrate Urban Birds," share the associated posters with your group. If you've chosen to use eBird, share any other bird resources such as the focus cards if you've purchased them.

2. How to Identify Birds
  • Emphasize to children that, no matter which project you choose, the most important first step in being a good citizen scientist for birds, is to be able to accurately identify the birds.
  • If you've chosen to use focus cards, hand out the bird focus cards for birds in your area, one per child. Ask the children to notice differences among the birds. Explain that looking at physical characteristics (including size, shape, and color pattern) and field marks (spots, stripes, colors and other distinct features) of these birds is good preparation for going outside to identify and distinguish between birds in nature. Outside, bird identification will be more challenging because the birds are moving and may be far away.
  • Ask each student to become an expert in recognizing his or her focus bird, so that when the class is outdoors and someone sees that bird, he or she can help the rest of the class identify it. That way, the class as a group will know how to identify as many birds in the field as there are students in the class! You may wish to give the students time to research their bird and present what they learn to the class.
  • Here are some additional resources on teaching kids to identify birds

3. Look for Birds!
  • Either go outside in your area, or take a hike in a natural area or local park, or find a comfortable place to watch your feeder.
  • Ask students to record the characteristics of birds they see. Ask the students to identify them if possible or mark them as unknown.
  • After about 15 minutes, call students together. While outside, review the names and characteristics of any birds the students identified, and make sure they agree that those species are correctly named. Ask students to work in pairs or threes to identify the "mystery" birds and then count the birds that they can identify accurately. Students should write the names and numbers of all these birds on a tally sheet.
  • Make a master list of birds sighted by the class, showing the number of individuals of each species. If students cannot agree on the number of birds of each species, make your best estimate or come to consensus.

4. Be a Citizen Scientist
  • Closely follow the instructions for the projects in which you plan to participate. For most projects, you and your group can count birds as often as you like. Keep data sheets together and enter the data each time you count or every few times you count. Make it a regular activity!
  • You can also build new feeders, plant a bird-friendly garden, make bird art, write an article using citizen science data, and many other projects depending on the program you are participating in.
  • The data you contributes a citizen scientist helps us understand where and when birds are in your area. We'd like to hear about your sightings on the Habitat Exchange wiki. Summarize what kind of birds you often see so that other schools can compare.

5. Class discussion
Your "I Wonder" list (Journal Page 19) can quickly fill up with questions fast when you’re doing citizen science. Encourage students to record their questions.

  • Was it harder or easier to identify birds than you thought it would be?
  • Do you think we accurately identified the birds we named?
  • Where were the birds on our walk? What were they doing?
  • Why is it important that we identify and count accurately? (Citizen science works only if people are accurate with their observations. As with all science, accurate data is necessary for valid results!)
  • What do you think we could do differently next time to see more birds? To be better able to identify the birds we see?
  • How do you think scientists use the data we collect about birds? What kinds of questions can they answer? (Because citizen scientists collect data on a continental and even global scale, scientists can answer vast questions about our ecosystems. The State of the Birds report shows the results of analyses based on eBird data and other variables. Citizen science data are proving essential in designing management strategies for protection of bird populations across the U.S (and increasingly throughout the world).
  • How do you think citizen science can help us understand the effects of things like the oil spill on birds? (Many citizen scientist projects like eBird help ornithologists look at how bird populations fluctuate on a yearly bases. When both natural and non-natural disasters happen, citizen scientists observe how bird populations are affected.)

Extensions: Continuing Citizen Science Inquiry

The value of your data and the power of your students' curiosity will grow as you continue counting birds! Again consider beginning the BirdSleuth investigating evidence online curriculum. Here are some other simple project ideas to consider:

Activity # 1
Project: eBird or Celebrate Urban Birds
Location: 3 different habitats
Duration: Monthly, over the school year
Details: Students formulate hypotheses about the kinds (characteristics) of bird species that will be found at a wetland, meadow, and riparian area (banks of rivers, streams, or lakes). They could create hypotheses about which habitat will have highest/lowest abundance, or greatest/least diversity of birds. Students observe birds found in all three locations and record data on their tally sheets. After the count is complete, students create graphs with their collected data and draw conclusions on their hypotheses.

Activity # 2
Project: eBird
Location: bird feeder or courtyard area
Duration: One week with three daily observations: morning, lunch, and end of school day
Details: Students formulate hypotheses about when they think birds are most active and why. Students observe birds at feeders and record data about the numbers and types of birds that are present. They may also record observations of the birds' behavior. After the count is complete, students create graphs with their collected data and draw conclusions.

Activity #3
Project: eBird
Location: In class
Duration: one or more class sessions

Details: Explore the data on the eBird website, including maps, graphs and lists. Your class can also collect and upload their own data to eBird and then explore their "My ebird " site, and learn to manage, summarize, and download their data. This could be a short intro to eBird or could extend over a week or more. An extended lesson would allow changes in the lists and charts in My eBird to be noted.