Wednesday, November 5, 2014

What’s At Your Bird Feeder? Scientists Want to Know

btn-PFW-verticalThe number one reason to have a bird feeder near your home, of course, is to enjoy observing the birds that come and go and their behavior. And when northern winters are at their most severe, you may also be helping some birds survive.

But there is another potential and broader benefit, for both birds and perhaps your own satisfaction, that can arise from feeding birds: letting scientists know what you are seeing. Even common birds such as chickadees and juncos carry important messages about the health of bird populations and trends among them. The problem, of course, is that ornithologists can’t be in very many places at any given time. But bird enthusiasts can be, and they can function as “citizen scientists.”

In fact, a report published in September in a respected scientific journal found that more than 75% of what scientists now know about the impacts of climate change on birds has come from information submitted by amateurs through various citizen science projects.

For the last few years I have encouraged Adirondack Almanack readers to participate in one of the largest of these projects, the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) in February. This time, I decided to focus on another, longer-term, effort called Project FeederWatch. Run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and now entering its 28th season, Project FeederWatch is another opportunity for birdwatchers to contribute to accumulating data about what is happening with bird numbers and distribution across the continent by tracking and submitting what they see at their own feeders.

But FeederWatch differs from the GBBC in several ways:

  1. It is a season-long project, extending from November into April.
  2. Participants conduct counts at their own homes (or schools, workplaces, etc.).
  3. Participants can conduct counts as often as weekly if they wish, but less often is fine, too. Each count consists of the largest number of birds of each species that you observe at one time during a two-day period. Reports are submitted online (unless you prefer paper forms).
  4. There is a cost: $18 for the season.

As with the GBBC, the map of FeederWatch participants in NY State reveals that the Adirondack Region is mostly blank when compared to the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys, for example. Of course, this is in part due to a lack of human inhabitants in many places. Still, there must be more potential observers in the region whose reports would boost our collective knowledge of winter birds there, particularly those not likely to be seen as often elsewhere, such as boreal chickadees and the several winter finches.

If you already watch feeders, or if you are now motivated to start, this is the time to do it. This year’s Project FeederWatch observation period begins on November 8, but it is not essential that you be ready to go on that date. It also is not necessary to be an expert at bird identification. You can just report the birds you know, and help is available on the FeederWatch website.

To learn more and register, visit Participants receive the FeederWatcher Handbook and Instructions with tips on how to successfully attract birds to your feeders, an identification poster of the most common feeder birds, and a calendar. In addition, they will receive Winter Bird Highlights, an annual summary of FeederWatch findings, as well as the Cornell Lab’s printed newsletter, All About Birds News.

And remember, for scientists, what you don’t see is just as important as what you do!


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Wally Elton is a writer and long-time birder and 28-year Project FeederWatch observer living in Saratoga Springs. He also is a volunteer Great Backyard Bird Count ambassador.

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