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I grew up in an amorphous place: the unincorporated county that became incorporated by a major city. In my childhood, there was a former cow pond that teemed with fish and turtles, with copperheads, with tadpoles and pollywogs that grew into frogs and toads, with leaches and crawdads and who knows what other invertebrates.

In no small part because food was abundant, the pond was frequented by Canada geese (Branta canadensis), mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), red-breasted mergansers (Mergus serrator), great blue herons (Ardea Herodias), belted kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon), snowy egrets (Egretta thula), coots (Fulica americana), green herons (Butorides virescens), and red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis)—and that’s to say nothing of the occasional visitors who blew in on hurricanes or appeared as part of migratory patterns, or the birds that were just generally common to the region.

Perhaps this is why my mom liked to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count, which takes place every year (this year it lasts from tomorrow, Friday, February 17 – Monday, February 20; this is the 20th anniversary). The Great Backyard Bird Count asks that people observe the birds near them for as little as 15 minutes on one or more of the four days, and then report their sightings at birdcount.org. This is a citizen-scientist project that helps researchers at the Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology learn more about birds, how we can protect them, and what we can do to maintain or improve the environment we share.

You don’t have to be an expert to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC, if you like cool acronyms or are looking for it on social media). You just have to register with your name and an email address, and report your findings for each time and/or place that you spend time bird-watching. If you’re not an expert at identifying birds, birdcount.org suggests several online databases to help you ID the birds you see (or hear). Even if you can’t identify the bird, you can probably get close (a hawk, for instance, doesn’t look especially like any non-raptor, and the folks who are coordinating this information understand how tricky the Accipiter genus is), and that’s perfectly fine.

The Great Backyard Bird Count can be done with your family, your co-workers, your BFFs, before or after brunch, or on your own on a hike—those are just a few suggestions. You’re also invited to take pictures, and submit them as part of the bird count; if you’re inclined to take pictures, like I am, I imagine this could make the time even more enjoyable. The picture below is a northern cardinal, photographed by Priscilla Morris of Tennessee, which was one of the honorable mentions in the bird behavior category last year.

Cardinalis cardinalis

Cardinalis cardinalis

The Great Backyard Bird Count is also an opportunity to take a few minutes to slow down and appreciate the world around you—regardless of whether that’s the middle of a city, in the countryside, at a wildlife refuge, or somewhere else entirely. You can participate from anywhere in the world!

If you decide to participate, we would love to hear about your experience or see your photos on Facebook!