Project FeederWatch brightens winter

Project FeederWatch brightens winter with backyard birds

White-breasted Nuthatch by Errol Traskin, courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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.

2019-20 FeederWatch Season:

25,679 participants

184,676 checklists

7,551,144 birds

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

            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.  

Explore and enjoy Project FeederWatch

BobVuxinic-Project FeederWatch

A Dark-eyed Junco enjoys seed at a platform feeder. Because it shows no rust or “pink” coloration, no white wingbar and no pale head, it is the slate-colored subspecies. Photo by Bob Vuxinic/Project FeederWatch.

By Barb Gorges

Despite snow on the ground and pea soup fog at South Gap Lake in the Snowy Range (11,120 feet elevation), on Sept. 27 I saw a flock of dark-eyed juncos. They like snow. Usually I see the first ones down in my yard mid-October, when alpine winter conditions get too rough.

Juncos are those little gray birds that come in five subspecies and multiple hybrid colorations in Cheyenne, but they all have white outer tail feathers. They are my sign of the start of the winter bird feeding season–and the Project FeederWatch bird counting season.

Project FeederWatch is a citizen science opportunity for people with bird feeders to count the birds they attract as often as once a week (or less) between November and early April. Begun in Canada in 1976 and in the U.S. in 1987, more than 20,000 people participated last year. Data are used in scientific studies, many of which are summarized on the project’s website.

Participation costs $18. You receive a research kit, bird identification poster, the digital version of Living Bird magazine and the year-end report.

If you feed wild birds or are considering it, you must visit the Project FeederWatch site, https://feederwatch.org/, whether you register for the program or not. It is now beautifully designed and packed with information.

For instance, in the “Learn” section, I can find out juncos prefer black-oil sunflower seeds–and seven other kinds. I personally stick with black-oil because it’s popular with many species in Cheyenne. I also learned juncos prefer hopper-style feeders, platform feeders or feeding on the ground.

Seventy-one species are listed as potential feeder birds in the Northwest region, which stretches from British Columbia to Wyoming. However, about 15 of those species have yet to be seen in Cheyenne, so click on the “All About Birds” link to check a species’ actual range.

The Project FeederWatch website addresses every question I can think of regarding wild bird feeding:

–Grit and water provision

–Feeder cleaning

–Predator avoidance

–Squirrel exclusion

–Window strike reduction

–Sick birds

–Tricky identification, like hairy vs downy woodpecker.

In the “Community” section you’ll find the results of last season’s photo contest, participants’ other photos, featured participants, tips, FAQs, the blog, and the FeederWatch cam.

I find the “Explore” section fascinating. This is where you can investigate the data yourself. The “Map Room” shows where juncos like to winter best.

Based on last season’s data, in the far north region of Canada, juncos were number 12 in abundance at feeders. In the southeastern U.S., they were number 13. However, in the southwest, which has a lot of cold high elevations, they were number two, as they were in the northeast region, and number three in the central region, the northern Great Plains. Here in the northwest region, they were number one. We have perfect junco winter conditions, not too cold, not too warm.

However, looking at the top 25 species for Wyoming in the same 2016-2017 season (based on percent of sites visited and the average flock size), juncos came in fifth, after house sparrow, house finch, goldfinch and black-capped chickadee. Other years, especially between the seasons beginning in 2007 and 2013, they have been number one.

I looked at my own Project FeederWatch data to see if I could spot any dark-eyed junco trends.

I get in 18-20 weekly counts per year. In the past 18 years, there were three when the juncos missed none or only one of the weeks, in 2001, 2005 and 2008. Those seasons also happened to be the largest average flock sizes, 8.65 to 9.72 birds per flock.

Later, there were three seasons in which juncos came up missing six or seven weeks, 2011, 2013 and 2016. Two of those were the seasons of the smallest average flock sizes, 1.6 to 2.5 birds per flock.

It appears my local junco population was in a downward trend between 2008 and 2016. Let’s hope it’s a cycle. Or maybe our yard’s habitat has changed or there are more hawks or cats scaring the juncos away. Or some weeks it’s too warm in town and they go back to the mountains.

One yard does not make a city-wide trend, but we won’t know what the trend is unless more people in Cheyenne participate.

How many FeederWatchers are there in Cheyenne? We’ve had as many as four, back in 1999-2004, but lately there’s only been one or two of us. Statewide, Wyoming averages 25 participants per year.

If you sign up, you’ll have your own red dot on the map (but your identity won’t be publicized). I hope you’ll become a FeederWatcher this season.

 

2017-10 junco 1 by Barb Gorges

A photo taken through my Cheyenne, Wyoming, kitchen window shows a Dark-eyed Junco that is probably the pink-sided subspecies, or maybe a female of the Oregon subspecies–or maybe a hybrid. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Keeping citizen scientists happy

2016-11flamm-fest-participants-in-2005

Citizen scientists were recruited by the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (now the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies) to look for Flammulated Owls in the Medicine Bow National Forest in southern Wyoming in the summer of 2005. Mark and I are standing in front of the sign.

Published Nov. 13, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Turning Citizens into Scientists”

Note: The first Wyoming Citizen Science Conference is being held Dec. 1-3, 2016, in Lander. All current and would-be citizen scientists studying birds or any other natural science are welcome. See http://www.wyomingbiodiversity.org.

How to keep a citizen scientist happy

By Barb Gorges

A year after I married my favorite wildlife biologist, he invited me on my first Christmas Bird Count.

It was between minus 25 and minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit that day in southeastern Montana, with snow on the ground. He asked me to take the notes, which meant frequently removing my thick mittens and nearly frostbiting my fingers.

I am happy to report that 33 years later, my husband is the one who takes the notes and the Christmas Bird Count has become a family tradition, from taking our first son at eight months old and continuing now with both sons and their wives joining us.

The Christmas Bird Count started in 1900 and is one of the oldest examples of citizen science, sending ordinary people (most are not wildlife biologists) out to collect data for scientific studies.

In 1999, I signed up for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch and have continued each year. Last season 22,000 people participated. In 2010 I started entering eBird checklists and now I’m one of 327,000 people taking part since 2002. And there are nearly a dozen other, smaller, CLO projects.

It is obvious CLO knows how to keep their citizen scientists happy. Part of it is that they have been at it since 1966. Part of it is they know birdwatchers. That’s because they are birdwatchers themselves.

How do they keep us happy? I made a list based on my own observations—echoed by an academic paper I read later.

First, I am comfortable collecting the data. The instructions are good. They are similar to something I do already: keeping lists of birds I see. The protocol is just a small addition. For instance, in eBird I need to note when and for how long I birded and at least estimate how many of each species I saw. It makes the data more useful to scientists.

Second, I am not alone. The Christmas Bird Count is definitely a group activity, which makes it easy for novice birders to join us. I especially love the tally party potluck when we gather to share what the different groups have seen that day.

Project FeederWatch is more solitary, but these days there are social aspects such as sharing photos online. Over President’s Day weekend when the Great Backyard Bird Count is on, I can see animated maps of data points for each species. On eBird, I can see who has been seeing what at local birding hotspots.

Third, I have access to the data I submitted. Even 33 years later, I can look up my first CBC online and find the list of birds we saw, and verify my memories of how cold it was in December 1983.

The eBird website keeps my life list of birds and where I first saw them (OK, I need to rummage around and see if I can verify my pre-2010 species and enter those). It compiles a list of all the birds I’ve seen in each of my locations over time (89 species from my backyard) and what time of year I’ve seen them. All of my observations are organized and more accessible than if I kept a notebook. And now I can add photos and audio recordings of birds.

A fourth item CLO caters to is the birdwatching community’s competitive streak. I can look on eBird and see who has seen the most species in Wyoming or Laramie County during the calendar year, or who has submitted the most checklists. You can choose a particular location, like your backyard, and compare your species and checklist numbers with other folks in North America, which is instructive and entertaining.

I would take part in the CBC and eBird just because I love an excuse to bird. But the fifth component of a happy citizen scientist is concrete evidence that real scientists are making use of my data. Sometimes multiple years of data are needed, but even reading a little analysis of the current year makes me feel my work was worthwhile and helps me see where my contribution fits in.

What really makes me happy is that I have benefitted from being a citizen scientist. I’m a better birder, a better observer now. I look at things more like a scientist. I appreciate the ebb and flow of nature more.

If you have an interest in birds, I’d be happy to help you sort through your citizen science options. Call or email me or check my archival website listed below, or go to http://www.birds.cornell.edu.

Feed winter birds for fun

Goldfinches

An American Goldfinch (left) and a Lesser Goldfinch (right) share a thistle feeder on a snowy day in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Dec. 6, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Feed winter birds for fun.”

By Barb Gorges

Feeding birds in your backyard is a time-honored tradition. It makes a great gateway to building your interest in birds. But there are a few things you should keep in mind if you decide to put up a feeder.

Birds don’t need our food. They are good at finding natural food. Don’t worry if you don’t have food out for them every day, although being consistent means you are more likely to see interesting birds.

Bird feeding is really about enjoying the birds, so put your feeders close to windows you look out of often. Be sure to put them close so that birds won’t hit your windows at high speed when leaving your feeder.

Keep your feeding operation affordable. I’ve had people complain bird seed is expensive. But it’s up to you how much seed to put out and how often. Fill feeders at the time of day you can enjoy watching the birds.

Never put out more feeders than you can keep clean, or clean up after. Feeders can get gunky and can spread diseases. Every couple weeks, clean them with soap and water, maybe a little bleach, and rinse well. If you see a sick bird, don’t put the feeders back up for a week. We usually don’t feed in the summer because even more disgusting stuff grows in feeder debris.

Be sure to keep the seed hulls swept up every few days, or think about feeding hulled sunflower seeds.

Don’t be cheap. Rather than the bags of mixed seed, go for the black-oil sunflower seed. Seed mixes often contain filler seed—or at least seed that birds around here won’t eat—and you’ll just be sweeping it up anyway. Black oil sunflower seed attracts a wide variety of seed-eating birds. Buy the 40-pound sack at the feed store for a better price per pound. If it still seems too expensive, feed only the amount you can afford each day.

Leave the cats indoors. There are many reasons cats should live indoors fulltime, including their health and safety, but really, is it fair to invite birds to your yard where a predator lurks? The feeder may be on a pole or hanging above the cat, but certain birds prefer to feed on the spilled seed on the ground.

On the other hand, if a neighbor cat stakes out your yard, you can make sure the area around the feeder has no place for a cat to hide. I’ve also heard of putting up a 2-foot high wire fence around the feeder, maybe at a radius of about 6 feet. The time it takes the predator to jump the fence gives the birds enough advanced warning to get out of the way.

Offer variety. Some birds like tube-style and hopper feeders. Others that prefer feeding on the ground can learn to use a shelf feeder. Consider nyjer thistle, which is expensive, but use a special feeder for it designed with smaller seed ports or ports that are below the perches, something goldfinches and chickadees can handle but others can’t. Add a suet or seed cake. It may help draw in woodpeckers and chickadees. Offer peanuts and you may get blue jays—and squirrels.

Don’t clean up your flowerbeds in the fall. The seed-eating birds attracted to your feeders will enjoy the seed heads. Plus, tree leaves, while providing mulch, may also provide a variety of eggs of insects (many beneficial) that the birds enjoy picking over.

On a frigid day, have open water in a birdbath. It is almost more attractive than food. Find some kind of shallow bowl, preferably with sloping sides, which won’t break if the water freezes. It should be easy to bring in the house to thaw out. Or get an electric heater designed for birdbaths or dog water dishes.

For more detailed feeding information, go to my archives at www.CheyenneBirdBanter.wordpress.com. Look for “Bird feeding” in the list of topics.

Study your visitors. From your feeder-watching window, scan your trees and shrubs and garden beds to see if you can get a glimpse of more than house finches and house sparrows, especially in the spring. Of the 85 species I’ve seen in or above our yard, I’ve recorded 27 from November through March, prime feeder season.

Share your bird sightings at www.eBird.org, or for $18, this winter you can take part in Project FeederWatch, www.feederwatch.org. It isn’t too late to sign up. You get a nifty bird calendar poster and a handbook. Even if you don’t participate, the website is full of information about bird feeding and feeder birds.

Have fun. However, if you find it isn’t fun, take down the feeders. Reduce your stress by going for a walk and enjoy the birds along the way.

Project FeederWatch needs you!

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpeckers are more likely to visit if a suet or seed cake is available. Photo by Errol Taskin, courtesy of Project FeederWatch.

Published Dec. 15, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Project FeederWatch needs you.”

2014 Update: One more reminder: If you haven’t signed up yet, do it now.

By Barb Gorges

OK, listen up, people. I want YOU for Project FeederWatch.

While I can’t draft you like Uncle Sam, I would still like to recruit you.

Project FeederWatch is one of the citizen science programs of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This is the 27th season backyard birdwatchers in North America have contributed data about the birds that visit their feeders during the winter. The information is becoming increasingly important to scientists, yet it is so easy to submit, even a child can do it—and children are welcome.

It takes only a glance at the participant map to see that the Great Plains region is vastly under-observed. Even in a populated place like Cheyenne, the last few years there has been only one red dot—me, and possibly someone else too close by to show up as a separate dot. A few years back several dots showed up across the city.

I’d hate for the scientists to consider my backyard typical, or to have them completely drop our area in studies because of insufficient data, so that’s why I’m inviting you to join me. Besides, it’s fun, and it doesn’t have to take much time. Also, like me, you can learn a lot about the birds in your backyard.

Here’s what to do:

Visit the Project FeederWatch website, www.feederwatch.org.

Go to the “About” tab for an introduction and a step by step explanation of how to participate. Under the “Learn” tab, you can find out about feeding and identifying our local birds. The “Community” tab is where you’ll find tips and photos from other participants and the FeederWatch cam.

At the “Explore” tab you’ll find a bibliography of studies that used PFW data and nifty animated maps.

Next, click on the “Home” tab and then the Join Now button. Yes, it costs $15 ($12 if you are already a CLO member), but it’s a contribution to bird conservation. You have the option of paying over the phone, 1-800-843-2473, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. ET (6 a.m. – 3 p.m. Mountain Time).

All new participants get a handbook, a calendar and a full-color poster of common feeder birds in the mail. You may send your data online or mail in tally sheets at the end of the season.

Once you receive your identification number, you can log in through the “Your Data” tab. Set up your count site by describing it: number of trees and shrubs, bird feeders and birdbaths, and so forth. Sprinkling black-oil sunflower seeds on the ground where they can be seen from a window is perfectly acceptable.

Scientific protocol requires selecting your count days in advance. Each set of two consecutive days must be at least five days apart. Mark and I have chosen Saturday and Sunday each week.

It’s OK if you miss some of those count days. Project FeederWatch officials don’t expect you to stay home for the whole season, which is early November through early April. You can sign up after the season has started.

It’s also not necessary to sit by the window continuously. Mark and I leave pencil and paper on the table in front of the window, and whenever we are in the vicinity, we check and see if there any new species for the current count days, or more individuals of any species than previously recorded.

The other bit of protocol is that you only count the birds you can see at any given time. You can’t add the 15 house sparrows you saw in the afternoon to the 10 you saw in the morning. You can only record the largest number you saw at one time.

Record the high and low daylight temperatures over the two days. We use the weather reports published the next day in this paper, figuring the coldest temperatures are pretty close to dawn.

What do I have to show for 14 years of submitting data? With the newly redesigned website, I can see very colorful graphs for each of the 25 species I’ve observed. I know that 11 of those seasons we’ve had goldfinches and that 2004 was the first winter we had any Eurasian collared-doves—and only twice.

But mostly, by participating, I find satisfaction in knowing that “my birds” are contributing to scientific knowledge.

While the current season has already begun, it isn’t too late for you to share that satisfied feeling, or even provide it for someone else as a gift.

Clean-up is part of bird feeding

Sick House Finch

Sick birds at your feeder mean its time to take it down, clean it, and let the birds disperse elsewhere for a week. Photo by Ed Dien.

Published Oct. 7, 2000, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Clean-up is part of bird feeding.”

2014 Update: Don’t wait to see a sick bird to remind you to clean up your feeders.

By Barb Gorges

On one of those days I’d been going brain-cell-to-brain-cell with anonymous software engineers, I finally made a break for daylight, or at least a window overlooking the back yard.

Sunlight glistened on dog droppings, inveigling me to go outside to clean up before the next snow and get some fresh air.

Dog droppings only glisten from a certain angle. In our yard, when you wield the long-handled scoop, they blend in with patches of leaves, hide under snow remnants and hunker in shadows of the lawn made lumpy by night crawlers.

One of the lumps was the fluttering remains of a house finch. Probably dead from house finch disease. Its neck didn’t seem broken from a collision with a window, no cats have been seen lately, and the dog’s getting too slow to play with birds.

For the sake of future poop patrols, I decided to rake up the clumps of leaves. It was after all, that balmy, windless afternoon just before Thanksgiving.

And I found another dead house finch. Oh geez. Time to sterilize.

A week’s quarantine is what I tell people. Wash and put away the feeders for a week.

It’s hard to sterilize the back yard. I didn’t do anything about the branches of the spruce where the house finches line up waiting for their turns at the feeder.

But I finished raking, swept the patio and used an ammonia solution to clean other favorite, white-washed perches like the TV antenna tower and the railing by the back door.

The wooden shelf feeder I brushed off and wiped with the ammonia. I even threw some on the patio, where wet sunflower hulls and leaves have left brown patterns on the concrete. I brought the tube feeder inside to soak in a bucket before scrubbing.

As the shadows from the neighbor’s garage put the yard in mid-afternoon twilight, I realized that my Thanksgiving bird count results were going to be rather poor.

I was able to count a dozen house finches and two gold finches that were picking over the lawn and flower bed. But there were no signs of the nuthatches and mountain chickadee that have been hanging around.

Birds have no qualms about using the same location for eating and defecating, resulting in disease transmission in crowded feeder situations.

Scientists using Project FeederWatch data from citizen observers across the country have been able to track the spread of disease and the impact on house finch populations.

The moral is anyone who feeds animals—dogs or birds—is responsible for the resulting byproducts. Just think of it as a chance to go out and get a little sunshine.

Regarding the great tit observed in Scotland (mentioned in my Thanksgiving Day column), my friend Dick Hart here in Cheyenne kindly relayed quotes from his Collins Gem Guide to British birds:

“This common visitor to suburban bird-tables has approximately the same range in Britain as the Blue Tit (all parts of the British Isles, although they are scarce in north-west Scotland); there is also some immigration of both species from Europe.”

Its call is described as a “ringing e-hew, ee-hew” and as “silvery axe-blows.”

My Thayer CD of Birds of North America includes 300 photos of world birds. The great tit looks like our chickadee, just a few centimeters larger, with a black cap pulled down over its eyes.

In fact, its genus, Parus, is the same, and includes 50 species around the world.

Dick wrote, “The various species of tits achieved some notoriety a number of years ago when they learned to pry the foil caps off milk bottles left on people’s front steps and drink the milk down as far as they could reach.

“Unfortunately for the birds the Brits have gone to plastic containers like ours.”

Project FeederWatch relies on citizen scientists

Project FeederWatch calendar

Each Project FeederWatch participant receives a calendar to help keep track of count days. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Dec. 9, 1999, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Project FeederWatch relies on citizen scientists.”
2014 Update: Project FeederWatch is still going strong. Check it out at http://feederwatch.org/ and sign up.  It’s $15 if you are a Cornell Lab of Ornithology member, $18 if you are bot.
By Barb Gorges
This winter I am one of over 13,000 “citizen scientists.”
What that means is that though I hold only a bachelor of science degree and have never worn a white lab coat, I too can contribute to scientific research. So can you.
Bird watchers have a propensity to quantify their hobby. Some people keep life lists and some people keep backyard lists of the birds they see. This winter I’ll be keeping track of the birds that visit my backyard feeders.
I heard about Project FeederWatch a few years ago when the National Audubon Society and the famous (in the bird world any way) Cornell Lab of Ornithology started a new venture called BirdSource, which sponsors several kinds of bird studies. What I didn’t know is that PFW started in Ontario in the 1970s. Do you suppose those Canadian winters forced them to find this form of entertainment?
From November through March, PFW studies the ebb and flow of bird species that use feeders. I missed the first reporting season, but that’s OK. It’s even all right to miss some others if something comes up on scheduled counting days.
If I were to submit my data in the traditional data entry, computer-readable format, I would be choosing two consecutive days each two-week reporting period. But I decided to go the on-line route which allows me to report every week. Picking two consecutive days at least five days apart then leaves me with weekends, in my case.

bird feeder

A squirrel-proof feeder filled with black oil sunflower seed attracts House Finches and a House Sparrow for a Project FeederWatch count. Photo by Barb Gorges

To sign up, I could send the $15 registration fee by mail or e-mail, however I chose to call in with my credit card. In return I got a poster, handbook, data entry book and an i.d. number. The fee may defray expenses as much as make people more apt to carry through–who wants to waste money already invested?
Besides entering information about the birds I see in my backyard, I’ve also described my set-up and at the end of the season I’ll describe what and how much I fed the birds.
All of my data gets compiled with everyone else’s. On the web I can look up animated maps (really!) that show sightings of each feeder species from month to month or year to year starting in 1992. I begin to realize that the fickle pine siskins might not have been boycotting just my feeder one year, but that for some reason most of them headed to another part of the country.
Ornithologists couldn’t possibly collect as much data themselves as we “citizen scientists” can. But they can use  our data to study the movement of feeder birds in the winter, their overall population changes and their food and habitat preferences. A related study has been the transmission of diseases between birds. The handbook gives the descriptions of various mainly house finch diseases (don’t read these right after reading).
Of course, every ardent birder’s favorite aspect of their hobby is reporting rare birds. It’s too bad the tundra swan Jim and Carol Hecker saw at Lions Park two days before Thanksgiving can’t count. I wonder, if someone put out cracked corn at the lake, could it be claimed as a feeder site? Looks like water fowl have to be written in.
Much of the interesting information about PFW in the handbook is also available at the website. The website though, has bird descriptions and animated maps. If you don’t own a computer, use one at the library. It isn’t too late to sign up to be a FeederWatcher.
If a once-a-year commitment is more your style, find out about the annual Christmas Bird Count.

To feed or not to feed birds?

Bird feeder

House Finches mob our sunflower seed tube feeder. The wire fencing is meant to keep squirrels and bigger birds out. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Nov. 29, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “To feed or not to feed? Local birdwatcher battles with whether her birdfeeder is a good idea.”

2014 Update: Besides www.abcbirds.org, check out bird feeding information at the Project FeederWatch website, http://feederwatch.org.

By Barb Gorges

To feed or not to feed, that is the question this time of year.

On one side are the purists who say bird feeders are an unnatural source of food for birds. They blame the invasion of the East Coast by a western bird species, the house finch, on feeding. They’ll point to avian diseases transmitted when unnaturally high numbers of birds congregate in the same location day after day.

The purists will mention birds die when they fly into windows near feeders or when they are attacked by loose cats. They argue that some birds may decide not to migrate if they have a ready food source. That is true for the Canada geese in Holliday and Lions Park.

But let’s keep this discussion centered on the songbirds fond of sunflower seeds.

The purists are right: A bird in its native habitat does not need supplemental feed to survive the winter. If its preferred seed crop had poor production or becomes covered in snow, it will fly. Grosbeaks, redpolls, waxwings, crossbills and siskins are all noted for travelling when they need food, sometimes hundreds of miles from their expected wintering grounds.

Yes, the backyard feeding station can be hazardous to small birds, but probably not any more so than natural predators and hazards.

So why feed birds? Do it for your own enjoyment. Do it for the cheerful chatter, the bright colors, the bustle and hustle. If watching fish swim in a bowl relieves stress, as I’ve heard, then watching birds out the window not only relieves stress, but is life affirming. It is for me.

Wildlife is elusive enough that most people have little contact with it unless they hunt or fish or have spotting scopes or long lenses on their cameras. Without some other kind of personal relationship, how can we expect the general population to begin to buy into any kind of conservation ethic? Most wild animals are too dangerous to approach or feed. Chickadees seldom are.

Is it important to have a conservation ethic? Yes. What makes wildlife and land healthy makes people healthy. If you want the footnotes and scientific references, read one of Michael Pollan’s recent books.

Meanwhile, let’s talk about ethical bird feeding. For more information see the American Bird Conservancy, www.abcbirds.org.

Grow diversity in your yard by providing native flowers, shrubs and trees for shelter and habitat, and even food. Reduce or eliminate pesticide use. Pesticides are toxic to birds and can kill insects beneficial to them. Even seed eating birds feed their young insects.

Provide water and keep it clean and fresh. If you don’t offer food, water will attract birds. Get one of those little heaters meant for bird baths or dog water dishes or use a portable pan or plastic dog food dish you can bring inside to thaw the ice.

Feed the good stuff, black oil sunflower seed, and thistle seed if you can afford it. Forget the mixes with red and white milo which tend to attract the non-native house sparrows and Eurasian collared-doves. They compete well enough with our native birds already.

You don’t need to run a soup kitchen. A couple of feeders are enough. If the birds empty them in the morning, then wait until mid-afternoon or the next morning to refill them. We don’t want to upset the natural balance too much.

Keep feeders clean. At our house we no longer use the feeders with the little saucers at the bottom—those get really gross. Our feeders are hung over the concrete patio so we can sweep up the debris regularly. If the weather gets warm, it is important to wash the feeders weekly before organisms can grow. If you notice sick birds, stop feeding for a week and clean everything.

Keep feeders within three feet of the window, so birds will be aiming for the perches instead of the glass or at least won’t hit the glass so hard. Leave the window screen on so birds will bounce off, or put decals on the outside of the window to break up the reflection. If feeding birds is for your enjoyment, there’s no point in putting the feeders where you can’t see them easily.

Keep your cat indoors—they look better if they haven’t lost the tips of their ears to frostbite. If it isn’t your cat lying in wait under the feeder, then send the dog out for awhile to clear the area.

If you won’t keep your cat indoors, make sure it doesn’t have a place to hide in ambush within 25 feet of your feeder. And if you can’t do that, don’t feed birds.

If you have trouble with deer horning in, either don’t feed the birds or put the feeders where troublesome wildlife can’t reach them.

If sharp-shinned hawks start picking off seed-eaters at your feeder, congratulate yourself on attracting the next level in the food chain. Life in the wild is about death as well.

Get a field guide from the book store or the library and find out what birds are visiting. Take a close look at the LBJs and LGBs (little brown jobs and little gray birds) and you might be surprised how many kinds you’ve attracted. Many are just here for the winter so enjoy them while you can.

Project FeederWatch makes indoor birdwatching fun

Downy Woodpecker

A Downy Woodpecker is one of the regulars on many Project FeederWatch counts. Photo by Errol Taskin, courtesy Project FeederWatch.

Published Nov. 11, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “FeederWatch returns. Web site is a nest of information.”

2014 Update: This is only one of several November columns about Project FeederWatch I’ve written over the years. This year Project FeederWatch started Nov. 8. Go to http://feederwatch.org/ to learn more and to sign up. The annual participation fee is now $18, unless you are a Cornell Lab of Ornithology member; then it is $15. The number of observers is now more than 20,000. Participate or just explore the fabulous website.

By Barb Gorges

The new Project FeederWatch season begins Saturday, so if you’ve considered joining, sign up now and make the most of the yearly $15 membership fee.

This will be my sixth season reporting on the birds in my backyard (and front yard now too). In preparation, I visited the Project FeederWatch Web site last week, http://www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw, to see what was new and to log on and update my information.

The Project FeederWatch home page is the portal to rich resources, even if you don’t sign up to submit data. First there are the headings across the top of the page, “About FeederWatch, Instructions, Data Entry, Explore Data, News, About Birds and Bird Feeding.”

I skipped the first, knowing already that this is a joint research and educational project of Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Audubon Society, Bird Studies Canada and Nature Canada, attracting 16,000 participants last year who reported, either online or on paper forms, weekly or bi-weekly, over 3.7 million birds at their feeders. Some watch less than an hour each time, and some spend hours at their window.

Project FeederWatch makes it easy for the rankest beginner to take part by sending a poster to help with identification, plus a handbook explaining bird watching, bird feeding and bird counting.

Online, the heading “All About Birds and Bird Feeding” is an even richer source of information. If all of you consulted this section, I may never get another phone call asking about bird feeding, making bird columnist a lonelier job. Topics include feed, feeders, tricky IDs, diseased birds, strange-looking birds, Bird of the Week and a link to an online field guide.

This last is a whole other wonderful Web site, http://www.allaboutbirds.org. While this is no substitute for flipping book pages when comparing birds for identification purposes, it has detailed information on each species (not just feeder birds), from sound and video recordings to egg descriptions.

Besides the species accounts are these headings: “Birding 1-2-3, Bird Guide, Gear Guide, Attracting Birds, Conservation, and Studying Birds.” This last is information on how to sign up for Cornell’s famous Home Study Course.

I found myself exploring the field guide quite awhile before backtracking to the Project FeederWatch home page to the “News” heading where vast amounts of data have been distilled into scientific reports and feature articles. But if you are feeling adventurous, try “Explore Data.” That’s where, among other things, I can access my own data submitted since 1999, neatly charted by year.

Again I got sidetracked. First I looked up the map showing FeederWatcher locations last year—21 in Wyoming including five of us in Cheyenne. Our state top 25 species list begins with house finch, followed by house sparrow, American goldfinch, dark-eyed junco, northern flicker and starling. Seventy species were reported, but some were one time wonders such as mountain bluebird. And some, like the bald eagle, hardly fit the definition of feeder bird. The reports of flocks of turkeys and chukars seem more like something from a gamebird farm.

While I was in the Map Room, I checked out mountain chickadees on animated maps of North America showing observation locations month by month and year by year. I also looked up the population trend graph and found fairly consistently over time that these chickadees visit 50 percent of participating feeders in the Northern Rockies, averaging three birds per count.

Back at the Project FeederWatch home page is a series of links down the left side. “FeederCam” will give me a live view of the feeders at Cornell in Ithaca, NY, when my computer decides to be more compatible.

“Participants’ Corner” has a lot to offer, including photos and stories. My favorite anecdote was from a woman in Maine covered by a swarm of 30-50 chickadees on her shoulders and arms, and nuthatches on her head, when she stepped outside during an ice storm.

From the “Feeder-bird Quiz” I learned that the most commonly reported bird is the dark-eyed junco. The “Young FeederWatchers” link has charming artwork plus extensive coverage of Monty the (stuffed) Moose’s trip to Cornell. His classmates in British Columbia, who participate in the classroom version, were able to observe him filling feeders through the FeederCam.

Along with various news stories on the home page, I noticed there will be a prize, including binoculars, for the FeederWatcher who submits the millionth checklist, expected to occur this season. Let’s see, if I’m home for all of my weekly counts, that will be 21 chances between now and the end of the season April 8.

Finally, I logged on with my personal password and number and updated my feeder site description so I’m all set for my first count day on Saturday. I’ll do the usual, leaving paper and pencil on the table under the window so that any of us in the family can jot down what we see whenever we walk by—if it is a new species or a greater number of any species recorded earlier in the day. Later, I’ll enter the data online.

I’m ready and I know the birds are too. They ignored our feeders until that six-weeks-late frost/snow on Halloween. Maybe I’ll put out millet for those Eurasian collared-doves still hanging around our neighborhood.

Can birds save the world?

The Audubon climate change study shows that by 2080, Black-billed Magpies, a common species in Wyoming, would lose 86 percent of its summer range and 51 percent of its winter range, predictions prove true. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Audubon climate change study shows that by 2080, Black-billed Magpies, a common species in Wyoming, would lose 86 percent of its summer range and 51 percent of its winter range, if predictions prove true. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Oct. 26, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Can birds save the world?”

By Barb Gorges

Last month, the National Audubon Society publicized the result of a seven-year study to determine what would happen to North American birds if the change in climate continues as predicted.

The startling conclusion is that by 2080, nearly half our bird species, 314 (588 were studied), would have a hard time finding the food and habitat they need. They probably would not adapt, since evolution normally needs more than 65 years. So they could become extinct.

“OK,” some people say, “big deal, I’ve never seen more than three kinds of birds anyway.”

That attitude was prevalent in the 1960s when eagles began producing eggs with shells so thin, the weight of the incubating parent crushed them.

“So what?” people said back then, especially if eagles made them and their lambs nervous.

The culprit was discovered to be DDT. And it was discovered to do nasty things to people as well. So you might say that birds saved the world from DDT (except it continues to be produced to control malaria).

Last month, the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society celebrated its 40th anniversary. John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, was keynote speaker at the banquet: “How Birds Can Save the World.”

Fitzpatrick’s premise is that birds are so many species of canaries in the coal mine. Or, to localize the analogy, so many sage-grouse in the oil patch. We should pay attention to what they are trying to tell us, before we hurt ourselves.

The Audubon report makes predictions based on two long-term, continent-wide citizen science efforts: the Christmas Bird Count (begun in 1900) and the Breeding Bird Survey (begun in 1966).

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology itself is well-known for citizen science projects such as Project FeederWatch and the Great Backyard Bird Count. But the one that has mushroomed into a global phenomenon is eBird (www.eBird.org).

People who enjoy birdwatching have learned over the last 10 years to put just a little extra effort into it by counting birds they see and entering their notes online. Scientists can now see where bird species go and when, as if they have radar running year round. The more people enter observations, the clearer the picture emerges. And population changes are clearer, too.

When bird numbers change, or populations move, it’s due to one or more changes in the species’ environment. Some can be directly attributed to people, such as building a subdivision over a burrowing owl colony, and some indirectly, like climate change causing nectar-producing flowers to bloom too early for migrating hummingbirds.

Back in the 1970s, saving the environment always seemed to mean doing without, like hippies living off the grid. To some extent, curbing our desire for items built with planned obsolescence, like the latest smartphone, would preserve a little more landscape.

But Fitzpatrick’s contention is that we can live smarter, rather than poorer, have our cake and eat it too, have our lifestyle and our birds.

We need creative people. For instance, I read 400,000 acres of California cropland is barren for lack of water this year. Yet power companies are stripping vegetation in the Mohave Desert to build arrays of solar panels. What if farmers rented out those barren fields for temporary solar installations?

There’s work being done on solar paving. Imagine a sunny city like Los Angeles being able to power itself from all its lesser used streets, rather than depending on the transmission of electricity across hundreds of miles.

What if we put as much effort as we put into getting man on the moon into finding ways for every part of the country to produce energy in a way that keeps birds happy and us healthy?

I’m not an engineer, and probably neither are you. There is a shortage of them in this country. How can we raise more engineers and research scientists?

Take kids birdwatching. No, this isn’t exactly one of Fitzpatrick’s fixes. It’s mine.

What are your kids doing on Saturday mornings? Watching cartoons and competing in athletics are all well and good. But what birdwatching does for children, and the rest of us, is to make us ask questions about the birds and their behaviors, to research, to communicate with others, and now, to search the eBird database.

When children develop these habits of curiosity through birds–or other disciplines–they begin to see themselves in the sciences, in engineering, in technology, in all those “hard” subjects. And we will have the creative minds we need.

Our local Audubon chapter, now age 40, will continue with its traditional field trips (open to accompanied children and recorded for eBird, of course), educational meetings and projects, habitat improvements, and conservation advocacy. But watch for those special opportunities to introduce your children, grandchildren or neighbor children to birds. Because birds can save the world.