It's time to fill up the birdfeeders, pull out the field guide, and polish your binocular lenses. This weekend (February 13 to 16) is the Great Backyard Bird Count, by far the easiest and most pleasant way to participate in the scientific process. All you have to do is spend at least 15 minutes identifying and counting the birds in your yard, and then tell the GBBC project (run by Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology) what you saw.
The GBBC is about 10 years old, so it's starting to accumulate some interesting data. But massive data collection schemes are often so noisy that it takes a long time for a signal to emerge. The Christmas Bird Count, also conducted by volunteers all over the country, has been held for more than 100 years. Researchers have published hundreds of papers drawing on CBC data and used the survey to identify birds in decline and help prioritize conservation measures. Participating in the CBC is a much bigger commitment, though—you spend all day (starting at 4 a.m. to hoot for owls) counting all of the birds in your assigned wedge of a 15-mile-diameter area. In late December. (The coldest I've ever been was during a Christmas Bird Count in Idaho Falls.)
One of the reasons to conduct a count of birds in people's backyards is to document weird "irruptions," when birds show up outside of their normal range. This winter has had some interesting irruptions; birders all over the East have been thrilled by an abundance of pine siskins (in my yard!) and white-winged crossbills (still looking for them).
Before you tell the GBBC people, though, tell us: what's in your backyard?