When it comes to science, every sparrow counts

To researchers, the number of sparrows in people's backyards is often just as important as how many spotted owls there are in B.C.'s old-growth forests.

Sparrows may be more common than spotted owls, but the numbers and range of the little brown birds are important indicators about issues such as climate change, B.C. bird expert Dick Cannings says.

Changes in sparrow numbers or how far they range north and south in North America offer valuable insights into the changing environment.

Sparrow numbers have been on the decline in recent years, Cannings said. Scientists are just now beginning to wonder why.

The loss of common species needs to be seen as just as alarming as the loss of so-called keynote species such as spotted owls.

"There are concerns about endangered species, but there is an increasing (awareness) on the part of conservationists that it is better to keep common things common," he said.

"A lot of people will argue it is more important to count the sparrows."

That makes the annual Backyard Bird Count all that much more important, he said, as counting little brown and white birds can only be accomplished with many, many sets of eyes.

Cannings, national program director with Bird Studies Canada, said this year's count will take place Feb. 12 to 15. Everyone is encouraged to take part, he said, by signing onto the study's website, downloading a checklist and looking out the window.

Literally.

The backyard bird count is exactly that, Cannings said. While enthusiastic birders might head out in wider search of Lewis's woodpecker or some other rare species, sightings of average and ordinary birds flitting through the cedars and trees of Kamloops backyards are just as important to the study.

Count the starlings and the crows, too, as well as ravens, stellar jays and finches.

"There are lots of people who like to watch birds, so we harness that talent and energy and we get a lot of good data," he said. "You don't have to go far, just look out your window . . . and write down the birds you see.

"It's really very simple."

The Backyard Bird Count's website can be found at

http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc.

Cannings said residents with bird feeders will have an extra advantage, as feeding stations inevitably concentrate bird numbers in the winter.

Feeders are often a hot topic in the birding world, he noted. Some believe they do more harm than good.

In some cases, feeders encourage birds to stay around an area when they ordinarily might not, but Cannings said he does not believe that has a negative impact on birds.

If the feeders were not there, birds would find other sources of food, he noted. Wild birds are well suited to the places where they are found and are adept at finding feed -no matter what the weather.

It's only if a winter is extremely severe, he said, will feeding make any difference to the birds. And this winter, with above-average temperatures and lack of snow, isn't such a year.

Kamloops birder Rick Howie agreed. Bird feeders, he said, are more for people than birds.

He urges people to know what they are in for if they choose to set up a bird feeding station in their backyard. The sites require work beyond keeping them stocked with seed or suet.

Bird feeders must be kept scrupulously clean, he said, to prevent the spread of disease. If stations are allowed to become dirty with droppings, there is a risk that serious bird diseases can be transmitted.

There is another risk of creating a bird feeder - the possibility of attracting predators. Howie said all those little birds flitting about feeders will attract avian predators such as merlins and sharp-shinned hawks. Cats, too.

So don't be shocked when a finch gets nabbed in the talons of a merlin, he said.

"(Hawks) need to feed as well," he noted.

As for the best kind of feed, high-protein sources such as sunflower seeds offer birds the best nutrition. Stay away from peanut butter or bread. Suet is well liked by woodpeckers.

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