Look carefully: A flash of red, perhaps it's a cardinal. A tiny bit of a beak, maybe that's a Carolina chickadee. A pair of wings spanning the treetops, could be a hawk. Just how many birds do you see?
That's the question being asked by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology during next week's Great Backyard Bird Count challenge.
"The Great Backyard Bird Count is a free, easy way to get people involved in nature, whether they live in the country or in the city," said Miyoko Chu, spokeswoman for the bird count and science editor for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "It's massive, and anyone can do it. You can count birds in your backyard, in the school yard, in the park, wherever you are."
The bird count challenge will take place Feb. 16 to 19 across the United States and Canada. Now in its 10th year, the Great Backyard Bird Count aims to get families and individuals involved in bird watching, as well as create a set record for the specific birds in certain neighborhoods.
Taking part in the activity is simple: Observers merely count the birds they see or hear buzzing in their backyard, then enter the tally at the Great Backyard Bird Count Web site, www.birdsource.org/gbbc.
While at the site, participants can compare their counts with other counts in the area, as well as in areas across the states and Canada. The count also offers a real-time look at the number and types of birds that people are finding.
With the information collected in the count, researchers track migration patterns, census, disease and urbanization information, as well as other tidbits and data that can help them study birds, Chu said.
Local bird count results
Participants don't need a science degree or a membership card to a local Audubon society. All they need are a few free minutes and the skills of observation. The bird count site can help watchers identify the birds they're seeing, and if a watcher makes an error, that's fine, too.
"That's the great thing about the bird count," Chu said. "We want people who have never done it before to try it. You don't need to be a professional. If you identify a bird incorrectly, the computer system has a built-in filter, and if information looks wrong, a regional reviewer will check into it."
Last year, about 7.5 million birds were recorded from the count's 60,503 submitted checklists - a near record, Chu said.
"The record of checklists is 61,049," she said. "We're hoping this year, we can break that record."
In 2006, metro Atlanta had the sixth highest number of checklists submitted throughout the U.S. and Canada. Fultondale, Ala., came in at the top spot. The five most-spotted birds in the Atlanta area were the red-winged blackbird, the American robin, the American goldfinch, the Northern cardinal and the mourning dove.
"What's interesting about that top-five list is that all those birds are native," Chu said. "In most urban areas, we tend to see more invasive species, like the sparrow."
Coaxing birds into your yard isn't difficult. According to John Drake's theory, bird watchers only need two things.
"Water and food," said Drake, owner of Strictly for the Birds in Lawrenceville. "That's all you need to get birds to come to your yard."
Bird baths make good social gathering spots for your winged friends, while hanging bird feeders and bird houses stocked with blocks of seed - black oil sunflower seed is always a safe bet - are also hot spots.
"Mealworms are also good for getting birds out," Drake said. "Bluebirds are particularly attracted to mealworms, and that's a bird everyone loves to look for because they are so bright and colorful."
For more information on last year's results or to take part in the bird count, visit www.birdsource.org/gbbc.