It all started with one bird feeder in their backyard six years ago.

Now, Kristi and Scott Stokley not only have more than a dozen “eating spots” for birds but are active birders and “citizen scientists,” keeping track of birds year-round for Project FeederWatch and participating in this coming weekend’s 20th annual Great Backyard Bird Count.

“It (the passion for birds) grows on people,” says Kristi Stokley, who says the couple will spend weekend mornings watching birds from their sunroom.

The Stokleys have participated in the past two Great Backyard Bird Counts, which included 23 species last year in their yard, and are among a contingent that are regulars with the four-day count, set for Feb. 17-20.

The backyard is nature, too

Much has changed since the first Great Backyard Bird Count in 1998.

That first year, bird watchers submitted about 13,500 checklists from the United States and Canada. Last year, an estimated 163,763 bird watchers from more than 100 countries submitted 162,052 bird checklists reporting 5,689 species, which is more than half the known bird species in the world.

The bird count is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada and is sponsored by Wild Birds Unlimited in the United States and Armstrong Bird Food in Canada.

In a nutshell, the count seeks volunteers to commit to counting birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days during the official time period. While it’s called a “backyard” count, it can also take place in parks, on school grounds, beaches or anywhere one finds birds.

Volunteers then enter the number of birds and the species on http://gbbc.birdcount.org/ or http://ebird.org/, which offers convenient phone apps.

Cornell’s Marshall Iliff called the idea for the bird count an “experiment.”

“We wanted to see if people would use the internet to send us their bird sightings,” says Iliff. “Clearly the experiment was a success.”

All the data contribute to a snapshot of bird distribution and help scientists see changes over the past 20 years. But it also is an ideal way to introduce people to citizen science, according to Audubon’s Vice President and Chief Scientist Gary Langham.

“No other program allows volunteers to take an instantaneous snapshot of global bird populations that can contribute to our understanding of how a changing climate is affecting birds.”

Global & local

Danielle Motley, co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Mount Pleasant, says the idea of committing a minimum amount of time, or as much as one wants, is a part of the appeal of the backyard count.

While Motley’s store presentation on this year’s count has passed, she says the store is hosting a “bird walk” at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Pitt Street Bridge to help people add a few birds usually not found in backyards to the list.

For those who enjoy the comforts of home, she’s encouraging people to put out a wide variety of bird foods prior to the count to start drawing a diversity of bird life during the count days. After all, not all birds eat seeds. Bluebirds, pine warblers and common yellow throats like protein-packed meal worms and suet cakes, while Baltimore orioles, cedar waxwings and catbirds gravitate to fruit.

“We always encourage people to put a large variety of foods out for the birds but especially during the count. For those (counters) that are a little competitive, the foods can make the difference between a 10 species count list or something much more impressive.”

Another benefit of the backyard bird count, Motley adds, is that it is conducive to involving children and entire families.

“We also really want kids to enjoy this count as well. Because it’s free it is a great one to get families involved in,” says Motley, adding that the bird supply shop offers a child-friendly, affordable ($15) “Flying Start Combo” feeding system that has suet, seeds, and nuts all in one feeder.

She adds the store offers children a beginner’s checklist and a coloring book before the count plus a free bag of bird seed if they bring in proof that they participated in the count.

Wild Birds Unlimited as a whole is a major sponsor of the count and so a portion of all her sales goes to Cornell and to the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Lifelong passion

One person who was introduced to the joy of birdwatching and feeding as a child is Dr. Ed Blitch, a podiatrist who is also a coastal master naturalist. His father was a prominent birder in South Carolina.

Blitch will participate in the backyard bird count, which he says is among an array of opportunities for locals to enjoy the diverse bird life of the Lowcountry.

“The Great Backyard Bird Count is a great first step,” says Blitch, adding that plenty of free apps are available now to help people identify birds.

For those who catch the birding bug, Blitch adds that it does come with a level of responsibility. He urges all avid backyard birders to make sure seed and suet doesn’t get moldy, to not put feeders in places that make birds prone to predation by outdoor and feral cats and to keep feeders clean.

Contact David Quick at 843-937-5516. Follow him on Twitter @DavidQuick.