The 4-day Great Backyard Bird Count begins today. Look out your window right now and count the birds you see in your backyard, park, wildlife refuge, office parking lot, dark alley, or wherever you might be lurking. If you submit a checklist noting the species you see, you get to call yourself a "citizen scientist."

The checklists will help researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada learn more about how the birds are doing  and how to protect them. Last year, participants turned in more than 93,600 checklists online, creating the continent's largest instantaneous snapshot of bird populations ever recorded.

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You don't need to be a bird expert to participate, and you can count birds for as little as 15 minutes or tirelessly for the entire four days. Then log in to birdcount.org and record your findings. The website will display real-time maps and charts that will reflect what others are reporting during the count. And if you're not an expert, the site also provides tips to help identify birds. You can even enter the GBBC photo contest by uploading your images, and be entered to win birding  supplies like binoculars, books, CDs and feeders.

Since bird populations are constantly shifting, the data submitted will help scientists "discover how birds are responding to environmental change," said Janis Dickinson, the director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab. 

The Great Backyard Bird Count runs Feb. 12-15, 2010.

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