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Birdathon events in Wisconsin will be making some big changes this year to help participants stay safe and practice social distancing guidelines.

Every spring hundreds of bird-loving Wisconsinites participate in the Great Wisconsin Birdathon, the largest bird conservation fundraiser in the state that takes place during peak bird migration.

For the past nine years, teams ranging from kindergarten classrooms to expert birders have joined in the fun, collecting donations and pledges for how many birds they can spot in a single day, with proceeds supporting priority bird conservation projects like the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II, Bird City Wisconsin, and the Neotropical Flyways Project.

This year, rather than canceling in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Birdathon is making some big changes to help participants stay safe and practice social distancing guidelines.

“With so many events canceled and now even some state parks being closed, birding is one of the few pastimes we can all still enjoy while practicing social distancing, and it’s accessible to everyone,” said Sarah Cameron, coordinator of the Great Wisconsin Birdathon. “You can bird from your living room window, while taking a walk in your neighborhood, or in a local park. It’s also just a good excuse to get outside, breathe in the fresh air, and appreciate the natural world as spring unfolds around us.”

In order to allow teams more flexibility, the Birdathon will extend into the fall, running from April 15 to Oct. 15. Instead of encouraging traditional team outings, participants are being asked to try new strategies that adhere to the Safer at Home order issued for Wisconsin. Options include backyard birding, signing up as a solo team, or having teammates bird in different locations.

Jim Shurts, former board member of the Madison Audubon Society, has been the team captain of the “Reckless Wrens” for nine years, and promises his team will be the opposite of reckless this year.

Instead of their usual group outing to a birding hot spot, Shurts’ teammates have agreed to bird separately at local Audubon properties near their homes, and will virtually connect later in the afternoon for a post-Birdathon celebration where they will swap stories and tally up their results.

“Trying to find as many species as possible in a 24-hour period and raise money for the Birdathon is actually quite rewarding for me,” Shurts said. “Birds brighten my day, whether they’re a flock of tundra swans at Madison Audubon’s Goose Pond Sanctuary, or the house sparrows at my feeder. The Birdathon is one way I can help make the world a better place.”

With the recent study pointing to the three billion bird loss in North America since 1970, and reduced populations of once common Wisconsin birds, Cameron says efforts like the Birdathon are more critical than ever.

“The funds raised will continue to support bird conservation in Wisconsin,” Cameron said, “but this year we just want people to have fun, be inspired, and help spread the word about how we can all contribute to bird conservation, whether you’re raising awareness on social media or growing bird-friendly native plants in your garden.”

In an effort to support fellow non-profits who may be facing financial disruptions due to COVID-19, the Birdathon is also extending a special offer normally reserved for conservation non-profits. In 2020, any 501c3 organization that participates in the Birdathon will be able to keep half the funds they raise for their own organization to use however they are most needed.

“In this time of uncertainty, we hope the Birdathon can serve as an additional reason to connect — safely or virtually — with your loved ones, as well as a reminder of the incredible strength we have when we come together with our communities to make a difference,” Cameron said. “We might be physical apart from our teammates this year, but what joins us all together is a love and appreciation for Wisconsin’s birds.”

Registration for the Great Wisconsin Birdathon is now open. To register your 2020 Birdathon team or learn more about the Bird Protection Fund and projects supported by the Birdathon, visit WIBirdathon.org.