Back yards, parks and forests across North America will be crawling with thousands of "citizen scientists" this weekend, as both expert and amateur bird watchers take part in the 14th annual Great Backyard Bird Count, a vast effort to study the health of U.S. and Canadian bird populations. The project offers a way to kill two birds with one stone (figuratively, of course): Scientists get far more data than they could collect on their own, and non-scientists get to connect with nature while doing important conservation work.

"The power of the ordinary citizen with a few minutes of observation to supply information that is of that continental scale is amazing," the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology tells Reuters. The GBBC is organized by Cornell University as well as the Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada, and last year it collected a record 97,331 checklists, including 11.2 million birds spanning 603 species. This year's project runs for four days from Friday to Monday (Feb. 18-21), and participants can choose their level of commitment — some count birds for as little as 15 minutes, while others contribute several hours throughout the weekend. They then report their findings online at, providing scientists with a widespread snapshot of bird species in North America. "What's particularly useful about this data is that it's on a big scale," Emily Morris, a naturalist with Audubon Arizona, tells the Arizona Republic. "For scientists, that's one of the most important things they can have."

Of course, the GBBC isn't just for scientists or birds. Much like the Audubon's bigger and better-known Christmas Bird Count, it's also an opportunity to get people outside and attuned to nature. "Whether people notice birds in back yards, parks or wilderness areas, we ask that they share their counts," Audubon vice president Judy Braus tells the Los Angeles Times. "It's fun and rewarding for people of all ages and skill levels."

(Sources: GBBC, Reuters, Arizona Republic, London Independent)


The sun unleashed its largest solar flare in four years this week, and the cosmic radiation began slamming into the Earth Thursday and Friday, threatening to disrupt GPS and other satellite communications around the world. It's likely a sign of things to come over the next few years, scientists warn, as the sun recently entered the active phase of its 11-year solar-storm cycle. All this solar activity — caused when magnetic fields on the sun's surface are effectively short-circuited, sending plumes of energy exploding into space — is expected to reach its peak in 2013.

Three solar flares erupted Monday, the largest being an "X-class" flare, the most powerful of all solar events. X-rays traveling at the speed of light hit the Earth within eight minutes, followed by slower-moving radiation that can take a few days to cross the 93 million-mile gap between the sun and Earth. There were early reports of radio disruptions in southern China late Wednesday and early Thursday, and while more blackouts are likely, experts say this event won't be as severe as some in the past. One solar flare in 1972, for example, shut down phone lines in Illinois, while another in 1989 caused power outages for 6 million people in Quebec. Still, astronomers are quick to point out we haven't seen the last of our newly fired-up star. "This is one of the first real solar events of the next solar maximum," a Cornell doctoral student tells Reuters. "That is when you would see the highest number of solar flares."

Solar flares aren't all bad news, though: As USA Today reports, the sudden influx of solar radiation could trigger aurora borealis — aka the "northern lights" — across not just Canada, but also northern parts of the U.S. New England is especially likely to get a cosmic light show Friday night.

(Sources: Los Angeles Times, Reuters, USA Today)


Bear hibernation has always been a bit of a mystery to scientists, since few humans are willing to sneak into bears' dens and check their pulse. But thanks to a new study in the journal Science, we not only now have proof that bears hibernate, but we're starting to understand how. And if we can crack that mystery, humans might one day be able to hibernate, too. "If we can uncover the way hibernators turn down their demand for oxygen, you can imagine developing a therapy ... to put someone in stasis, a protected state," one of the researchers tells the Washington Post. "That would give you more time. It would expand the 'golden hour' where it's critical to reach medical care to a golden day or a golden week."

The study focused on five Alaskan black bears sleeping all winter in their dens, where researchers had set up an array of high-tech instruments to watch their vital signs. Abdominal sensors had also already been implanted in the bears to measure their breathing and heart rate, while other monitors kept tabs on their metabolism by tracking oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. Meanwhile, an infrared camera observed them as they shuffled around every couple of days. As the Post muses, "it's more than reality show contestants usually have to put up with." But the bears slept through all of it for five months, giving the researchers a wealth of data about what happens to their bodies when they hibernate. "Somehow the bears have tricked their tissue, their bones and muscles, into thinking they're still doing work," says Brian Barnes, director of the Institute of Arctic Biology. "We're very interested in that."

Most animals that hibernate are smaller than bears, and they usually reduce their body temperatures to ridiculously low levels. Bears are different, though, the study reveals: Their core body temperatures dropped to a minimum of only 85 degrees, well above other hibernators' low point. Their metabolism also didn't plummet like that of smaller animals; while some rodents can fall to a metabolism rate of just 2 percent, the bears only went down to about 25 percent (although it did take them weeks to get back to normal after waking up). That suggests there's more than one way to hibernate — and it might not be out of humanity's reach. "If our research could help by showing how to reduce metabolic rates and oxygen demands in human tissues, one could possibly save people," lead researcher Oivind Toien says. "We simply need to learn how to turn things on and off to induce states that take advantage of the different levels of hibernation."

(Sources: Washington Post, TIME, ScienceDaily)


Japan has canceled its annual winter whale hunt weeks ahead of schedule, blaming anti-whaling activists for "harassing" its whaling fleet and putting its crew in danger. "From the viewpoint of our crew's safety, we have decided to cut short the research whaling at this time, against our will," Japanese Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Michihiko Kano told reporters Friday, signaling a major blow for the country's controversial whale hunts in the Southern Ocean.

The season's early finish marks the first time Japan has called off its Antarctic whale hunt since it began the practice in 1987, CNN reports. The marine-conservation group Sea Shepherd began an aggressive campaign against the whaling fleet in 2005, becoming an increasingly bigger impediment with almost every season. And this year, by blocking the fleet's mother ship from hauling up harpooned whales, Sea Shepherd has made perhaps its most significant progress yet in combatting the internationally condemned hunts. "If it's true, this is great news," Sea Shepherd Capt. Paul Watson tells CNN, saying he remains skeptical the hunts are being canceled. "But we'll keep tailing them until they leave these international waters." Watson has also criticized Japanese officials for accusing activists of endangering the whalers, arguing Sea Shepherd only uses nonviolent tactics. "We're getting more support every year, so it's working out that we're wearing them down," he says. "We've found a way where, once we're on them, they can't kill whales. We're very stubborn and very persistent. We've clearly frustrated them."

Japan's whaling fleet netted only a fraction of its quota in minke and fin whales this season, pulling in roughly one-fifth of the 850 whales it had targeted. Although commercial whaling was banned by an international treaty in 1985, Japan has continued hunting whales under a loophole that allows killing them for scientific research. Japanese officials claim to be studying whales' effects on fish stocks, arguing the giant marine mammals are pests that compete with human fishermen for food.

(Sources: CNN, Guardian, BBC News)


Snow falls on the Sahara, hunting with hounds is outlawed, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (baby bird in back yard): kfinny/Flickr

Photo (solar flare): NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Photo (black bears in den): Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Photo (Sea Shepherd clashing with Japanese whalers): ZUMA Press

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.