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Britain's Big Butterfly Count Begins, With David Attenborough Leading The Charge

The United Kingdom is counting its butterflies today — and will keep going for the next three weeks.

The ninth annual Big Butterfly Campaign kicks off today, with a big boost from a legendary voice.

"I did it in my garden," Sir David Attenborough intoned. "Where are you going to do yours?"

The ask is simple: Anybody in the U.K. can download an app or print out a chart that shows pictures of common butterflies.

Any time between now and Aug. 12, participants are invited to sit in a sunny spot for 15 minutes and keep their eyes open, marking every butterfly they see. Every brimstone and every common blue, every painted lady and each peacock.

Last year, more than 60,000 people participated, counting more than half a million individual butterflies.

Butterfly Conservation, the group that organizes the count, says that since the count began in 2010, the data recorded by citizens showed changes in the butterfly population that "match closely with those from much more intensive, transect-style butterfly monitoring." That is, the crowd-sourced data is actually useful for measuring how various species of butterfly fare in different years.

In an interview with ITV, Attenborough said that a butterfly audit provides a useful glimpse into the health of the largest ecosystem.

"You can build up a picture — a nationwide picture — of what is happening to butterflies, and they're very important indicators of what's happening in the countryside as a whole," he said. "We've been doing this now for getting on 10 years, so we've got remarkable results as to what the history is — and that enables us to predict what's going to happen in the future."

With birds chirping in the background, Attenborough revealed that there's another reason for the audit, too.

It's not a PR push for butterflies, or an awareness-raising campaign about dwindling populations. It's a stealth effort to boost Britain's state of mind.

"Just taking time out of this worrisome world — as we hear [in the news] there's so much to worry about, really desperately worry about," he said.

"Just to take off 15 minutes every now and again, find a nice patch of sunshine, sit there and think of nothing but what butterfly is that and counting them — it's very good for the soul," Attenborough said.

The project has the support of the British charity Mind, which advocates for better mental health.

The U.K.'s Big Butterfly Count is, of course, focused on butterflies in the U.K. — although its live map of results shows that someone in Missouri offered up a contribution.

But no matter where you live, you can benefit from the mood-boosting powers of a butterfly survey.

If you live in the U.S., you can join a local butterfly monitoring group or grab a quick guide to identifying some common North American species.

Or skip the identification — just take 15 minutes in a sunny spot and watch the butterflies flutter by in perfect ignorance.

Does it sound less than thrilling? Listen, Attenborough is 92 years old. He has traveled around the entire world getting up close and personal with some of the most spectacular fauna on the planet.

And he is delighted to spend 15 minutes in his own garden gazing at insects.

"I have been privileged to have witnessed some truly breathtaking wildlife spectacles in far-flung locations," he told the BBC's Wildlife Magazine, "but some of my most memorable experiences have happened when I've been simply sitting and watching the wildlife that lives where I do.

"A few precious moments spent watching a stunning red admiral or peacock butterfly feeding amongst the flowers in my garden never fails to bring me great pleasure."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.