If you have never taken a moment to watch a bird, you may want to do so. It is one of the most inexpensive yet rewarding of hobbies.
Now, there's another incentive. The second annual Great Backyard Bird Count began Feb. 19 and will continue through Monday, Feb. 22. That's when the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, co-sponsors of the event, give anyone who wishes to participate the chance to join the count.
Allison Wells, communications coordinator at the ornithology lab, says 14,000 people from across the country responded last year for the first Great Backyard Bird Count. Within hours, she says, it was possible to compare data coming in from across the country.
For a slide show of some birds species you could be watching, click here. (Illustrations courtesy of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.)
To participate in the count, all you need to do is spend at least 15 minutes birdwatching on any day during that four-day period. Those who wish can participate daily. All you need to do is stay within a half-mile radius of your home and count the number of each species of bird you see. You don't have to have a backyard birdfeeder; you can count the birds you see at a local park, school grounds, or other area.
Then, you log onto BirdSource, the Web site of the Cornell Institute of Ornithology. That's where you input the data you've collected.
The information will be interpreted by researchers at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the Audubon Society. They will use it to create charts, maps, and graphs showing the latest reports from across the nation. The one below is an example of the count last year, for the Mourning Dove:
Dr. John Fitzpatrick is an ornithologist and the director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab. He says the data will help show how bird populations have expanded or declined: "It's a fantastic way to get a quick read about where the birds are when they've reached their wintertime retreats and are about to go back north."
This is important, Fitzpatrick says, because bird populations at this point in their migration cycles "are not censused by any other techniques, which makes it a good slice to examine in the biological cycle of birds." It will help ornithologists determine exactly where birds are wintering.
In looking at the data, ornithologists can drawn some conclusions about where bird species are declining or increasing, and take a proactive approach to bird conservation. Often, as Fitzpatrick explains, that means working on environmental factors such as pollution and habitat loss, or placement of radio transmission towers and cellular towers which can affect birds negatively.
"What kinds of conclusions we draw from the information is complicated," he says, explaining that baseline monitoring with more intensive work is needed. "Most importantly," he says, "the monitoring projects give us a sort of 'Dow Jones average' of bird populations. When the ticker goes down, it's a barometer."
The goal is to get one million birdwatchers to participate. Because of the educational value, the lab hopes to get at least 50,000 classrooms in the U.S. involved.
"Birds are awesome communicators," Fitzpatrick says. "They give us a sense of continuity with nature and information about the natural world."
For young people, he says, the program provides "good examples of biological messages about how the world works."
Fitzpatrick himself participates in another project, called "Project FeederWatch", which is more than ten years old. Participants in this project watch their feeders all winter long to help ornithologists track changes in bird species.
By Linda Fields for CBS.com. ©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed