The World on the Fly

The planet has more than ten thousand species of birds ―direct descendents of the dinosaurs that terrified every other living thing during the Jurassic era― but 150 species are now extinct as a result of human activity.

 Text and Photos: Carlos E. Gómez

Men and women have harbored a desire to fly since the dawn of humanity. Winged creatures represent qualities like purity, strength, and perfection. Birds symbolize flight and ascent, offering us the opportunity to free ourselves from our earthbound state and attempt to approach the sublime.

Since birds represent perfect beauty in this sense, they have been assigned values like nobility, grace, balance, and finesse. They speak to us of the Greco-Latin ideal of beauty, embodied in the swan. Hundreds of coats-of-arms, currencies, and postage stamps around the world bear images of birds. This close connection may be one reason why humans have long studied them, counted them, fed them, and established reserves to ensure their continued survival. Stemming from this effort to protect birds, the second weekend in May is celebrated yearly as World Migratory Bird Day, which is an initiative that arose from international wildlife agreements. It is administered by the United Nations Environment Program.


May 14 is Global Big Day! To celebrate, bird watchers around the world have agreed to carry out a massive global bird count lasting twenty-four hours. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the Audubon Society, and several birding associations helped create the event. Long live birds!

The fun event, which kicked off in 2002, is open to everyone. Anyone can join an established group, form a new group, or participate as an individual. Every sighting counts, whether from the garden of your house, a walkway, or a highway.

The website presents information in ten languages on how to upload data on sightings and photos of sightings, identify a bird or its song, or join a bird watching group to enjoy this fascinating outdoor activity.

The Challenge


According to Christopher Wood, one of the coordinators of the Cornell University ornithology project, this is a big challenge for all the teams, since the goal is to exceed last year’s count, which was run from Panama. Worldwide data indicate there were nine and a half million sightings in twenty-four hours last year, reported by more than 14,000 participants in 135 countries; the observers uploaded 45,000 lists to the webpage, with a record 6,085 species of birds spotted in a single day. South America led the competition in species spotted in a single day by region with 2,968, while North America boasted the largest team, with 37,433 lists and 11,899 bird watchers.

Rosabel Miró R., executive director of the Panama Audubon Society, says that Panama had 100 participants (including scientists, environmentalists, tourists, and bird watchers of all types), who reported 723 lists with 624 species of birds, exceeding the count posted by México, which recorded 585 species, and Costa Rica, which reported 499. This year’s contest among regions looks to be very interesting.

The importance of these counts lies in their contribution to a database that will be used by scientists to study distribution patterns, migration routes, nesting areas, hibernation and behavior, migration dates, flight times, and other environmental relationships that significantly affect the balance of ecosystems.

Using the information collected, conservation projects in each country can more accurately identify wetlands and other places of interest to ensure the conservation and recovery of at risk or endangered species. In addition, educational institutions and their environmental departments can use the database to raise awareness and foster appreciation for the diversity of birds in each country.

Participants become part of a network of more than 200,000 people doing their part for conservation. They get access to a database with information on which birds are seen regularly in their cities, neighborhoods, and parks and whether they are permanent, migratory, or seasonal; participants can even become specialized guides at places like Canopy Tower in Panama. Birds are free and so is access to the database!

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