Bird watchingIf the Great Recession finds you putting hobbies on hold in the name of the family budget, maybe it's time to let imagination take wing and get hooked on something that's wild, free and well, "cheep": ornithology, or in layman's terms, bird watching. Score one for the checkbook.

In fact, it's a hobby that allows beginning ornithologists of all ages to make meaningful contributions to science.The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been using citizen-science data since 1997 and currently counts more than 200,000 contributors each year. Thanks to modern communication tools, it is data gathering on a scale that was previously impossible.

Bird-watchers big and small can contribute the results of their sightings to help scientists understand how our feathered friends are affected by habitat loss, pollution and disease. The information helps track bird migration and documents long-term changes in bird population in North America.

Thanks to volunteers, an average of 1.6 million observations are reported each month to the online ornithology resource eBird. More than 80 million bird observations have been recorded in the Avian Knowledge Network, and last month more than 92,000 North American bird-watchers counted 11,466,057 in the annual four-day Great Backyard Bird Count.

All you really need to get started is some free time, and perhaps a little birdseed. To get the most bang for your buck, eBird reports that black oil sunflower seeds will attract the widest variety of birds.

That's information that will come in handy if you decide to be one of the 15,000 people who participate in Project FeederWatch. This project is currently taking registrations for the 2011-12 FeederWatch season. New birders must pay a participation fee of $15 and will receive a bird-identification poster, feeding information, instructional materials, calendar and tally sheet.

A separate project, Celebrate Urban Birds, allows enthusiasts to download a free bird-watching kit (in English or Spanish) or send away for posters, sunflower seeds and data forms. This project asks participants to observe a small, defined bird-watching area for 10 minutes and report on the presence or absence of 16 species of birds. The National Forum on Children and Nature selected this project as one of 30 "nationally significant projects to connect children with the outdoors."

City slickers might want to consider PigeonWatch, a project devoted to the "remarkable variation in colors of pigeons." This study helps scientists understand why pigeons continue to exist in so many different colors -- there are currently 28 "color morphs." Participants are asked to count the number of "color morphs" they see. Free, downloadable PigeonWatch kits including data sheets, quick reference guides, frequently asked questions and instructions. Kids might enjoy reading about "cool Pigeon Facts" (i.e., "Pigeons ... seem to be able to detect the Earth's magnetic field") as well as a few of the site's Pigeon stories. Who knew?

Other projects which are strictly for the birds include NestCams, streaming video images of birds in their nests, and CamClickr, an online project that engages volunteers in tagging and classifying more than 8 million images of nesting birds. This site uses a gaming approach to encourage friendly competition between birders, who score points and awards for tagging images.

Of course, if you're still having trouble ID'ing those birds, there's an app for that. BirdsEye Lite ($1.99 on iTunes), created by Birds In The Hand, is a birding reference for iPhone users on the go. Tweet that!

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