How Am I Involved? My Experience as a Backyard Biologist

I live in a suburban neighborhood of Atlanta. You can imagine the usual sounds—dogs barking, noisy neighbors, and the low rumble of UPS trucks driving by. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be abounding opportunities to connect with nature.

But lately I’ve had more time to spend in the backyard, and I realized something. When you stop and listen beyond the obvious noises, look closely, and REALLY pay attention, there is an entirely different community living right under our noses: the backyard birds.

I observed that this complex community is complete with friends, enemies, squabbles over food, and of course, newborn babies. As I grew more interested in these feathered friends, I spent more time researching Georgia birds. That’s how I found Neighborhood Nestwatch through my local Audubon Society website. Neighborhood Nestwatch is a citizen-science program conducted by the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and assisted locally by our museum of natural history.

The Program

Nestwatch allows citizens to help scientists answer two specific questions: how successful are backyard bird nests and how long do backyard birds live? It is a multi-year program that focuses specifically on ten bird species in five different regions of the U.S., and compares how successful they are in urban, suburban, and rural backyards. The idea is to see how human impact affects backyard birds, and perhaps how land-use planners can make well-informed management decisions. “Nestwatch collects information on the physical environment unique to each backyard and integrates it with data on bird biology to help determine which environmental features support or deter each target species,” the site states.

The Big Day

Once my application into the program was accepted, and I learned my backyard was a viable site, a Nestwatch field technician came to survey the yard and spent several hours with me and our birds. She netted (safely for the birds) and banded two species and even took feather samples for the lab. The samples will be used to determine what toxins and pollutants appear on the feathers. I was amazed how much she could find out in such a short time with each animal, including if he/she currently had a brood in the nest.

As a participant in the program, I report data on two components: the nests in my yard, and the re-sighting of banded birds. When the technician left, I decided to really jump into some research. After all, I wanted to know how and when I might see the two birds again, and how to know the status of the nestlings (since the nest was several feet overhead). I have loved learning about all the different species and their quirks and behaviors.

The Facts

As you might expect, factors such as climate change, chemicals, and habitat loss have impacted backyard birds. Even the most common species are in decline. According to the Audubon Society:

• Since 1967 the average population of the common birds in steepest decline has fallen by 68 percent

• Some individual species nose-dived as much as 80 percent

• All 20 birds on the national “Common Birds in Decline” list lost at least half their populations in just four decades

These are just a few of the statistics regarding birds in the U.S., and there is much more research regarding specific regions and species. But, the good news—citizen science programs like Neighborhood Nestwatch help scientists gather information, while simultaneously helping citizens become more aware of our own impact. Other programs such as the The Christmas Bird Count and The Great Backyard Bird Count are easy and fun ways to get involved.

The Follow-Up

While Neighborhood Nestwatch findings will take years to collect and report on, I can tell you my birds are doing great so far. In the month I’ve been participating, about four Carolina Wren babies fledged from their nest and frequently visit the backyard with their parents. Just from watching and paying attention, I have learned so much about these sweet little creatures! While each species has its own habits that are as predictable as the sunrise, each bird also has its own personality traits, just like us.

For me, watching backyard birds and hearing their songs is a peaceful practice. And it’s another reminder that every living thing is deeply connected to us.

If you are interested in birds, or connecting with nature in other ways, look for citizen science opportunities in your area. Getting involved is fun and you are helping science by doing so!

-Elaine DeSimone




Smithsonian’s Neighborhood Nestwatch 

National Audubon Society/Birds in Decline

The Great Backyard Bird Count (Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society)

The Christmas Bird Count (National Audubon Society)


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