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A great tit bird with spread wing. (Photo: Patrick Pleul/dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Pleul

Germany's big bird watch

Interview: Carla Bleiker
January 8, 2016

On January 9 and 10, an environmental group organized Germany's sixth bird census. Hobby ornithologists are called upon to count the birds they see in their backyards - it's citizen science with a conservation twist.


DW: What is the "Hour of the Winter Birds," run by Germany's Nature And Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU)?

Lars Lachmann: The "Hour of the Winter Birds" is Germany's largest citizen science project. That means that non-professional people work together on a scientific project.

Taking part is easy. You just need to follow three simple rules: you only count birds on the weekend January 8 through 10; you take one hour anytime this weekend and write down which birds you see from your vantage point in that time period; and you write down the maximum number of each kind of bird you saw simultaneously. That's important so that there isn't a divergence between a person who writes down 100 when the same bird flies by 100 times, and another one who just assumes it's the same bird and writes down one.

For how long has NABU held this bird count?

This is the sixth time it's happening. We usually have more than 70,000 participants. Last year there were 77,000 people taking part, and we got samples from 50,000 yards.

Lars Lachmann. (Photo: NABU)
Lachmann: We want to get people excited about natureImage: NABU

January is the perfect time for bird-watching, especially for people with little or no experience, because the animals can be easily spotted. There are no leaves to block the view.

Where do you see the potential in crowd-sourcing this task?

There are two important aspects. On the one hand, we get 50,000 samples in one weekend, which is an enormous advantage when compared to academic studies, for example. Professionals could never get that many samples in one weekend.

On the other hand, we get participants excited about nature. Many people aren't aware of all the different species in their backyard. The "Hour of the Winter Birds" is perfect for changing that. We want to encourage people to do a little more for nature in their backyard for the rest of the year as well. That way, they might count more birds next year.

Do similar projects exist in other countries?

Of course. Our event is modeled after another one that has been running successfully in Great Britain since the beginning of the 70s: The Big Garden Birdwatch, which also takes place in January. There are roughly 500,000 participating each year.

We're not quite there yet, but when you consider that every other person in the UK is a hobby ornithologist, our turnout of 70,000 to 80,000 is great as well.

House sparrow sitting on a branch. (Photo: Lukas Schulze/dpa)
House sparrows are among the most common birds in German backyardsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/L. Schulze

How much of the success in Germany do you think is due to the environmentalist mindset and the general interest in the environment that's prevalent in Germany?

Germans truly are environmentally conscious, probably even more so than the Brits. People just care about different topics. In Great Britain, people might be more interested in bird-watching, but less interested in recycling than in Germany.

The turnout for these events also depends a little on how participation in public events or membership in a club is regarded culturally. It's a big tradition in the Anglo-Saxon world. When people are interested in something, they immediately form an association, or they'll join one. It's a little like that in Germany, but completely different in eastern Europe, for example. Associations there are viewed very critically, because they used to be controlled by the state. So it's much harder to get people to participate in public events such as a bird count there.

What are some results you have gathered over the last six years?

You can see which bird species are most prevalent in Germany during winter. Every year so far, either the house sparrow or the great tit has taken the top spot.

Greenfinch sitting on a stone. (Photo: Imago/blickwinkel)
The greenfinch population is threatened by a parasiteImage: Imago/blickwinkel

But there's one species we've seen decline over the last six years as well: the greenfinch. It used to be a pretty common bird, but we think that the decline in numbers is due to an illness called Trichomonas gallinae. This parasite spreads easily around bird feeders and water bowls, and it's contagious, too.

Lars Lachmann is the expert for bird protection and ornithology with Germany's Nature And Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU). The "Hour of the Winter Birds" takes place January 8 through 10. You can participate by filling out the counting form here.

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