Looking for an outdoor activity that's educational and helps the environment? You got it: Join in the Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count. Every year, tens of thousands of birdwatchers all over the country gather at designated locations in December and early January to conduct the country's longest-running wildlife census. The Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology use this information to assess the health of bird populations and aid conservation efforts. Amateurs and experts alike, and all ages, are welcome.
If you're not a flocker, or you already missed the Christmas Bird Count in your area, not to worry: There's still plenty of winter left, and another roundup scheduled. Every February, Audubon and Cornell host the Great Backyard Bird Count. In 2010, from Feb. 12-15, you're invited to count birds wherever and whenever you like. You'll print out a regional bird checklist and then submit it online to the GBBC website when you're finished. This event is an opportunity for anyone to be a citizen scientist and gives a "real-time snapshot" of what birds are where across North America.
Then there's eBird, Audubon and Cornell's international, real-time, online bird database. Registration is free and easy, and you can record bird sightings from anywhere you've been, including overseas vacations. Your observations will be entered into the main database so scientists all over the world can use your experiences in nature to guide conservations efforts.
Bonus bird tip: remember to buy bird-friendly coffee! Deforestation in the Amazon for conventional "sun" coffee plantations destroys bird habitats, so be sure to buy shade-grown, certified organic, cultivated beneath living rain forest canopies. Rainforest Alliance-certified, or Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center-certified coffee.
Maybe you'll become a committed birdwatcher. Remember, they're watching you back, so behave!
Story by Rachel Brown. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2008 and has been added to MNN.com.