The Great Backyard Bird Count, the world’s biggest collaborative birdwatching event, is set to kick off on February 13. For four days, participants around the world will spend at least 15 minutes during the day observing birds and upload checklists of the number of species they count.

In 2014, Indian birdwatchers contributed the largest number of checklists by country. They hope to match that level again this year. The event is not restricted to watchers armed with binoculars and DSLRs with huge telephoto lenses who tramp into the great outdoors and compete with each other to spot the most number of birds. As the word "backyard" suggests, anybody willing to look can contribute to the counting.

“Nowadays, people don’t really look around them for birds,” said P Jeganathan, a representative of Bird Count India, a consortium of organisations that contribute to the Great Backyard Bird Count. “Some go to exotic places to see birds and then come back. But if they just look out of their houses, there are so many birds to count.”

Jeganathan should know. He spent all of 2014 watching birds outside his house for 15 minutes each day and counted 68 species in that period.

Annual event

The Great Backyard Bird Count began in 1999, but was restricted to the United States and Canada until 2012. Since then, it has become an annual entry in birdwatchers’ calendars around the world. India, perhaps by virtue of its large population, contributed the most checklists by country to the catalogue in 2014.

Most of these came from birdwatchers in Kerala, who in that year counted 286 different species of birds in 1,173 checklists. Meghalaya’s single list counted 28 species.

“Even though it is short term counting, it happens worldwide,” Jeganathan said. “That gives us a snapshot of what kind of birds there are at a time. Over the years we can then see how the number of birds have increased or decreased across the world.”

Interest but no action?

Over the last decade, interest in amateur participatory birdwatching – or birding, as practitioners now call it – has shot up in India. In 2012, for instance, in response to a fear that sparrows were disappearing from cities, people around the country participated in Citizen Sparrow, a two-month project to document sparrows. The survey showed that the number of sparrows was indeed lower than it used to be, but that there were still large populations in cities, even if hidden.

However, interest during one event does not mean all birders do anything for birds for the rest of the year.

“Although awareness has increased, as a naturalist, I don’t think that it is being converted into action,” said Atul Sathe, of the Bombay Natural History Society, which is coordinating the Great Backyard Bird Count in India for the first time this year. “People are concerned in small capacities of groups and societies, but in general, they do not then start to make environment-friendly lifestyle choices. I am not blaming them, but it will take more time for action to happen.”

Policy changes that might arise out of mass movements are even further off and continue to be driven by research organisations and media participation.

Institutions like the Bombay Natural History Society have been conducting awareness programmes and birding tours for students for decades now. These remain strong recruitment grounds for young nature lovers to turn scientists when they are older. It is not clear if “citizen birding” also inspires the same involvement, even though it does increase awareness.

“Birding events are just a starting point,” said Jeganathan. “Even though ornithology in India has a long history since the 19th century with the British and Dr Salim Ali, it hasn’t reached the common man. That is what is important. That is what citizen scientists are trying to do.”

Here are some events in the annual frenzy of bird counting that aspiring birders can look out for:

1. Asian Waterbird Count
This event has seen enthusiasts in 27 countries across Asia and Australasia going to wetlands and counting birds there over a certain set of dates since 1987. Their reports form a part of the International Waterbird Census. The count, which is usually in January, is coordinated in India by the Bombay Natural History Society.

2. India Bird Races
Bird races, where teams observe as many birds as they can over a single day, take place between November and March every year. The bird race began in Mumbai in 2005, but soon spread to the rest of the country. In 2014-'15, India Bird Races will take place in 16 cities. It now claims to be the largest birding event in India.

3. Big Bird Day
Just as India Bird Races begins to wrap up, another bird race happens around the country, this time only on one day in March. The race is the brainchild of the DelhiBird group that started it in the city in 2004. In 2014, 400 teams participated from 28 states and they together counted 794 birds.

4. Kerala Common Bird Monitoring Programme
Kerala’s phenomenal participation in the Great Backyard Bird Count was largely due to its overlap with the first Kerala Common Bird Monitoring Programme that year. This event, organised by at least ten organisations across the state, takes place twice a year, in February and September, and follows roughly the same methodology as the global event.

5. On festivals
Another set of bird counting along the same format of reporting happens during festivals for birders from south India. An Onam Bird Count started in Kerala in September 2014 inspired a Pongal Bird Count in Tamil Nadu in January. Both events are likely to be repeated in coming years.