ITHACA, N.Y. -- Harry Potter fans and bird enthusiasts from all walks of life are invited to help track "Harry Potter's owl" and other birds Feb. 15-18, in the fifth annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC).
A project of Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology with sponsorship from Wild Birds Unlimited, the GBBC asks everyone with an interest in birds -- families, individuals, classrooms, community groups -- to count the numbers and kinds of birds they see during any or all of the four count days. They can count in their backyards, schoolyards, local parks, nature centers, even at the office.
Reports are made over the Internet at BirdSource , a multimedia, interactive web site developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon.
"This is the fifth year of the Great Backyard Bird Count, and we couldn't be more excited," says Frank Gill, Audubon's senior vice president for science. "We're in the midst of a major invasion of sorts -- many bird species that typically spend the year in Canada and the extreme northern U.S. are moving into regions farther south. With help from bird lovers everywhere, we'll be able to see which species are where during the Great Backyard Bird Count."
One of the species making rare appearances is the snowy owl, a bird that has become widely recognized recently as a result of the immense popularity of the Harry Potter books and recent movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone . In the series, Harry's pet is a snowy owl named Hedwig. Snowy owls typically spend the year in the far north, feeding on lemmings in the Arctic tundra. Some winters, this food source reaches an extreme low, forcing many of the owls into areas farther south.
This winter, snowy owls have already made appearances in southern Maine, New Hampshire, upstate New York, North and South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and elsewhere. With help from GBBC participants, the whereabouts of snowy owls will be plotted on maps at the web site almost as soon as reports are made throughout the four count days.
Special GBBC web pages will feature snowy owls and nine other North American owl species as well, representing a range of habitats and geographic locales. Species summaries, images, calls, and conservation status will be available at the web site . Two of the featured owls -- short-eared owl and elf owl -- are on Audubon's "Watch List" because they are showing population declines. Another species, the burrowing owl, also is declining in parts of its range.
"Harry Potter mania has helped focus the nation's attention on owls and provides us with a unique opportunity to engage everyone, including children and their families, as participants in an event that will yield further insight into the birds' population status," says John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "At the same time, putting owls in the spotlight is an ideal way for people to learn about other kinds of birds as well."
The Great Backyard Bird Count has been collecting data about the vast majority of North American birds since 1998. The purpose of the count is to build a continentwide index to help researchers keep tabs on the distribution and abundance of bird populations over time. The GBBC is part of a suite of bird monitoring projects that include Audubon's Christmas Bird Count and the Cornell lab's Project FeederWatch. In its five-year history, more than 100,000 people have participated in the count.
GBBC participants are asked to count the highest number of each bird species seen at one time (to ensure the birds are not counted more than once) and keep track of the amount of time spent counting. Then they log onto the BirdSource web site at to make their reports.
Results from the count are updated hourly in the form of animated maps and colorful graphs for all to view online. Participants will be able to see almost immediately how their observations fit into the continentwide perspective. Findings from previous years also are available at the site, as are the ever-popular Top Ten lists.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a membership institution interpreting and conserving the earth's biological diversity through research, education and citizen science focused on birds. Supported by 550,000 members in 518 chapters throughout North America, the mission of the National Audubon Society is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds and other wildlife, for the sake of humanity and the earth's biological diversity.
Materials provided by Cornell University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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