Backyard counters help scientists know who and how many are where when
by Dotty Holcomb Doherty
Getting breakfast together, I glance out at my feeders. A cardinal in fresh red plumage sits on the tube feeder, patiently cracking sunflower seeds with his sharp cone-shaped bill, his tongue deftly finding the morsel inside. A chickadee bursts from the oak tree, grabs a seed and retreats to a nearby branch. Inching her way tail-first down the trunk of the sweetgum, a red-bellied woodpecker arrives to sample the suet. A tiny brown creeper, camouflaged against the grey tree, scurries up and down, waiting for a turn. Mourning doves share the ground with white-throated sparrows and a junco, gleaning seeds others have spilled. A Carolina wren, never one to be silenced by winter, sings lustily from a brush pile, then sneaks in for suet dropped by the woodpecker.
On a checklist next to my sink, I note each species and the number seen. I count birds for Project FeederWatch, a program run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for the past 20 years. More than 13,000 people take part in Project FeederWatch from all over North America. Submitting more than 1.1 million checklists, backyard feeder-watchers have helped scientists track native and non-native bird populations and distribution, and the impact of West Nile Virus and House Finch eye disease. This year, the Cornell Lab is hoping for more feeder-watchers.
“About 128 people who have been with us from day one,” says project leader David Bonter. “Without our citizen scientists, there’s no way we’d be able to gather this much data for this long over the entire continent. There are some gaps though, so we hope new participants will join us this year. The more people participating, the more data we collect, the more we can learn about our favorite birds.”
Washing the dishes, I notice several house finches at the tube feeder and a white-breasted nuthatch scooting upside-down toward the now-available suet. I record them, too. A female cardinal feeds on the ground, but the male is nowhere in sight. I do not add her to the list. Only recording the highest number of a species I see at any one time, I resist the temptation to tally another cardinal, though their different plumage allows me to tell them apart.
When I signed up four years ago, I was impressed with the support set up by the Lab. An extensive online website answered my questions. With my data compiled and kept online, I can follow trends in my own yard through each winter as well as look at data collected by all bird counters.
I have noticed that the coldest, snowiest days bring in both the greatest number of birds and the greatest variety. Shy birds, like hermit thrush and eastern towhee, sneak in from the woods. One heavy January snow brought 14 species to my tiny backyard in the two days I watched. By late February, yellow-rumped warblers come in as food supplies get low in the woods.
Birds are counted from November 11 to April 6. You can join anytime during this period, though November is the ideal time to begin. People of all ages and skill levels are welcome. A computer is not required; checklists can be sent by mail as well as online.
New bird counters receive a research kit with easy-to-follow instructions, the Feeder Watcher’s handbook, a bird-identification poster, a calendar and a subscription to the newsletter of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
For more information or to sign up, visit www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/ or call 800-843-2473. A $15 fee makes the program possible.
Dotty Doherty reflects from the edge of Quiet Waters Park. Her last story for Bay Weekly was Long Strides toward a Cure (Vol. xiv, No. 39: Sept. 28).