Project FeederWatch brightens winter with backyard birds
By Barb Gorges
Nov. 14 marks the beginning of Mark’s and my 22nd season participating in Project FeederWatch. It’s a community/citizen science winter bird count endeavor started by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Birds Canada back in 1987.
It’s open to anyone, of any age, including classrooms, and of any expertise level, who is willing to put up a feeder and count the birds that visit and report them one to 21 times during the 21-week season. This year’s season ends April 9. Even if you don’t participate, there’s a wealth of free data, bird i.d. help and information about feeding birds available, https://feederwatch.org/ and fun stuff like the participants’ photo contests.
Here’s how Mark and I do it. Every year we update the description of our backyard—size doesn’t change but how many trees and shrubs may. We describe our birdbath and three bird feeders: sunflower seed tube, nyjer thistle seed tube and the cage that holds a block of pressed-together seed.
For the two-day count period we choose Saturday and Sunday each week, even now that Mark is retired. There must be a minimum of 5 days between counts, so we stick with the same days each week—it’s easier to remember.
We could print out an official tally sheet for each week, but we just use a scrap sheet of paper on the kitchen table. All our feeders, and the ground under them, are visible from the kitchen window.
During the count we are looking for the largest number that can be seen at one time of each species—at the feeders and in our bushes and trees. We estimate snow depth and amount of time we watch. We don’t spend hours at the window. It’s less than one hour over the two days—checking as we walk by.
By Sunday evening we can enter the count data online including any comments on bird interactions and observations of disease, and upload bird photos. There’s now a phone app for reporting counts too.
It’s fun looking at our own data. CLO makes cool charts. I can see how the number of species and number of individuals changes during a season. I can compare all 21 seasons by species—back in 1999-2000, we were seeing goldfinches nearly every week, much less often in 2019-2000.
Our yard’s landscaping has changed and matured. Over 1999-2000 we saw 12 species total. Over 2019-20, it was 21 species, though one week only one bird, a junco, was seen during the two-day count period.
There were 20,000 participants last year, but only 27 in Wyoming, urban and rural. We could use more data to give scientists a more accurate view of our birds. Consider joining.
The participation fee of $18 ($15 for CLO members) funds nearly the entire endeavor, including mailing a research kit to first timers: instructions and bird i.d. poster. We all can opt for th e calendar, 16-page annual report and a digital subscription to Living Bird, a 70-page, full-color quarterly magazine normally available for the minimum $39 CLO membership fee.
What will you see at your feeders? Here’s the list of the top 25 species based on the percentage of Wyoming participants reporting them last season:
Eurasian collared-dove 77
House finch 74
House sparrow 66
American goldfinch 66
Dark-eyed junco 66
Black-capped chickadee 66
American robin 59
European starling 55
Northern flicker 55
Red-breasted nuthatch 55
Downy woodpecker 48
Black-billed magpie 44
Blue jay 37
Mountain chickadee 37
Red-winged blackbird 33
American crow 33
Pine siskin* 33
Rosy finch species 25
Hairy woodpecker 25
Common raven 22
White-breasted nuthatch 22
Common grackle 22
Sharp-shinned hawk 22
Wild turkey 18
Song sparrow 18
*There’s an irruption of pine siskins this year because there isn’t a good seed crop in Canada. You may see more of them at your feeders.
House Finch by Maria Corcacas, courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Here in Cheyenne we are unlikely to see wild turkeys or rosy finches, but the other species, and more, are all possible. If you go to Project FeederWatch’s “Common Feeder Birds Interactive,” https://feederwatch.org/learn/common-feeder-birds/, set it for “Northwest” and “Black oil sunflower seed” and you’ll find photos of most of our species. Click on each photo and discover what other kinds of food and feeders that species prefers.
CLO has the free Merlin phone app for identifying birds. You answer simple questions about location, size, color, behavior and habitat for your unknown bird and it shows you photos of possible birds.
For each species, CLO’s All About Birds website, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/, will give you multiple photos, sound recordings, range map, habitat, food, nesting, behavior information, conservation status, cool facts, backyard tips and their names in both Spanish and French.
I hope you’ll join Project FeederWatch this winter with me and Mark. It is one of the things I like about winter.