University City

Anyone can help with the annual Backyard Bird Count

This year, ornithologists agree with all of the scorned lovers and lonely hearts:

Valentine’s Day is for the birds.

That’s because The Great Backyard Bird Count, a four-day event sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, starts Feb. 14.

The bird watch, now in its 17th year, makes scientists out of regular people by asking them to watch and record the numbers and species of birds they see.

“Scientists can’t be everywhere at all times, so it’s a great way for them to get a snapshot of where birds are and what they’re doing,” said Laura Domingo, a naturalist at the Reedy Creek Nature Center in Charlotte.

Over the years, Domingo has set free the bird enthusiast in many beginner birdwatchers, running workshops at the nature center to show them the best ways to attract birds for the count, or any other time they want to take part in their new hobby.

“There are many tricks of the trade to lure them in, but really you just need some kind of water source and some kind of food,” she said. “You don’t have to go out and buy $100 birdseed.”

Domingo can rattle off a homemade suet recipe that will attract at least 25 different species of birds.

She can tell you to toss a few peanut shells outside your window if you want to bring blue jays. But then expect to buy more.

“Blue jays will eat you out of house and home,” said Domingo.

Orioles like fruit. Bluebirds like mealworms. But any sack of birdseed will bring plenty of the feathered feeders in for a snack.

Participating in the bird count is easy. Register for a free account online, then spend at least 15 minutes one or more of the days counting and marking down the species observed.

There’s even an app for smartphones and tablets instead of logging with paper and pencil.

“Anyone can do this. You don’t have to be an expert. That’s the wonderful thing about it,” said Domingo.

She recommends people find an inexpensive pair of binoculars and a bird field guide, many of which are available online.

Scientists began the bird count to study trends in migration and bird health, and it’s proven to be a helpful tool.

Years ago, citizen bird watchers were the first to notice an eye disease that was affecting finches, alerting experts to begin studying ways to reduce its spread.

Mecklenburg County has been one of the top participants for nearly every year the bird count has taken place. In 2012, Charlotteans turned in 471 checklists, counted 21,103 birds and recorded 91 species.

But 91 species isn’t even one-third of what’s been recorded in the area in the past 150 years.

Don Seriff, a conservation biologist for Mecklenburg County, said, “307 bird species have shown up here since the Civil War. “Some of them are one-time wonders because of hurricanes, or things like that.”

It was a hurricane that brought in a very disoriented white-tailed tropicbird years back.

It’s a polar vortex that’s bringing more snowy owls to our neck of the woods now.

“It’s a citizen science effort that generates a lot of data,” said Seriff. “When combined with other regions, it can really show a good, clear picture of the winter distribution of bird species.”