Published Nov. 20, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Count on it. This Thanksgiving, take time to keep track of the birds.”
2014 Update: See the how-to-participate information at the end.
By Barb Gorges
Birds are a Thanksgiving tradition for most of us in the United States, usually a roasting turkey in the oven. However, for John Hewston, professor of wildlife at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., the holiday means flocks of wild birds. He is the compiler for the Thanksgiving Bird Count.
Many people are familiar with the longer-running, much larger and more intensive annual Christmas Bird Count sponsored by the National Audubon Society, but this count is much simpler to take part in for the average admirer of backyard birds.
Parties of observers sally forth in all kinds of weather for the Chritmas Bird Count, rambling over hundreds of 176-square mile, designated count areas, but each Thanksgiving Bird Count observer watches a 15-foot diameter cylinder around their own bird feeders, from a window in the warmth of their own home, or the home of the relatives with whom they are sharing that roast turkey.
While dedicated Christmas Bird Count birders may brave the elements from dawn to dark, Thanksgiving Bird Count participants are limited to one hour, although, if they wish to make things more challenging, they can spend another hour at another location. Last year Hewston received data from 472 counters in the 11 western continental states and Alaska for a total of 486 counts. This was the highest number of participants in the 11 years of the count. Hewston hopes to top 500 this year.
The first Thanksgiving Count was instituted by Ernest Edwards and the Lynchburg Bird Club in Virginia in 1966. Over the years it migrated west until Hewston took over compiling the western count in 1992.
Although count results may vary depending on who participates, such as the year reports from Hawaii documented only spotted doves and mallards, the data gives an overall picture of bird population trends from one year to the next and population differences from one place to another.
Hewston ranks the species counted. Last year there were more house sparrows (2,905) than any other species, but the house finch was seen at a greater percentage of count locations, 54.9 percent, closely followed by dark-eyed junco at 54 percent, but with the house sparrow trailing at 43 percent. A total of 176 species were reported inside count circles.
Hewston also shows results by state. California, of course, beats us all, with 119 counts recording over 100 species because it’s the winter destination for so many migrating birds. In Wyoming we had 20 counts recording 27 species. The house sparrow, at 240 individuals, was most populous, followed by the house finch at 94.
Hewston is always recruiting new counters. If you are already feeding birds and will be at home for at least an hour Thanksgiving Day, save the accompanying count form and take part. Sometime in late winter you will receive the results in the mail.
Don’t have a feeder yet? Get a sack of black oil sunflower seed from local businesses such as Big R or A&C Feed. Black oil sunflower is enjoyed by more bird species in Cheyenne than any other kind of seed. Spread some on your patio, windowsill or on top of your back wall.
The squirrels may find your seed first and if you object to squirrels, you may want to invest in a tube-type feeder with the wire mesh protecting it, or the hopper-type feeder that closes when heavy mammals or large winged marauders such as crows, land on the perches. Shelf and table-style feeders work well for bird species uncomfortable clinging to tubes or reaching into hoppers. Always leave a little seed on the ground for the ground-feeding birds.
Of course, a variety of food will increase the variety of birds. Suet appeals to woodpeckers, white proso millet to ground feeders and the fine, niger thistle stocked in special thistle feeders attracts goldfinches and pine siskins. Fruit, especially if you have any berry-producing bushes, will attract robins and Townsend’s solitaires. If you put out peanuts for the blue jays, be prepared for a squirrel attack.
However, the big drawing card may be water, especially if you can keep it from freezing on cold days. Specialty bird stores carry bird baths with heating elements, but even if you use an old plastic garbage can lid upside down, flexing it to break the ice out each morning and pouring in a kettle of hot water, the birds will appreciate it.
Cover is the other important aspect to attracting birds to your yard. Feeders themselves should not be placed too close to bushes that might hide predators such as loose cats. But having a bushy place within diving distance is appreciated by seed-eating birds when meat-eating hawks glide by, and also when weather is wild.
It sometimes takes awhile for birds to discover your new feeding station. You may spend the entire hour for the Thanksgiving Bird Count watching and no bird comes. That can also happen at a well-established feeder, so just report “no birds seen.” You might make a note on your report if you have just set up your first feeder.
Identify the birds
If you do have birds come, you’ll have to be able to identify them for the Thanksgiving Bird Count. With feeders close to a window, or with binoculars, most of the typical Cheyenne seed eaters are easy to distinguish.
Most likely to show up first at your feeder, especially if you use one of those seed mixes with a lot of millet, and the red milo that most local birds ignore, is the house sparrow. It is brown, but its breast and belly are a clear gray. Later in the winter the male will develop a black bib under its chin.
The next most common visitor is the house finch. It is grayish brown, but its breast and belly are streaked rather than plain like the house sparrow. The male has bits of red showing about its head, breast and rump and by spring these areas will be brighter.
Dark-eyed juncos are in the sparrow family, but they appear to be gray birds, rather than brown. We have several races that show up in Cheyenne. Some are gray and white, some appear to have rust-colored backs, some appear to have a black hood and some appear to have pink-colored sides, but the key identification marks are that these patches of color appear plain, not streaked like most sparrows, and when a junco flies, it flashes its white outer tail feathers.
Black-capped chickadees are less common, but due to their popularity as decoration on cards, mugs, etc., they shouldn’t be too difficult to identify. Be aware that we also have mountain chickadees. Their field mark is white eyebrows. Red-breasted nuthatches are about the same size, but more of a bluish color, more of a stream-lined shape and, of course, their breast feathers are a shade of reddish brown. Their most notable characteristic is that they examine trees by walking down the trunks head first.
You may be lucky enough to attract goldfinches, but don’t expect them to be bright yellow this time of year. The males don’t even have black caps now, but you’ll notice their black wings with white wingbars.
There are many good field guides available at the Laramie County Library or local bookstores to help you identify your avian visitors. But be aware before you purchase one that “Western” field guides may not cover all of the birds flying through Cheyenne. Look for “Blue Jay” in the index of western guides. The more up-to-date guides will list “Eurasian Collared-dove,” an immigrant species which has been seen here the last few years. The very latest guides will have changed the official name of pigeons from “Rock Dove” to “Rock Pigeon.” One of the best guides for first timers is Kenn Kaufman’s “Birds of North America.”
Beyond the Count
There are plenty of books on wild bird feeding, as well as Web sites. Be sure, however, to check if the information is geared for our part of the country. Check the range maps in a field guide to find if the bird species mentioned would even be here in the winter.
Bird watching, especially at the window, can be a lot more than counting numbers of birds and species. Observing bird behavior year round can be an intellectual as well as entertaining pursuit.
Once you get a Thanksgiving Bird Count under your belt, maybe you’ll wonder about all the winter birds that don’t eat seed or come to feeders. You’ll be ready to take part in the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count Jan. 3. Meanwhile, enjoy the birds in your backyard—and send in your Thanksgiving Bird Count results.
How to participate
- Select a circular area on the ground 15 feet in diameter, to include feeders, bird baths, shrubs, etc.—even a body of water. Imagine the circle extending upward as a cylinder.
- For one hour, count the numbers of birds of each species which come into this circle or cylinder. Count the maximum number of individuals of a species seen at one time. Otherwise, you may be counting the same chickadee every time it shows up for another helping.
- Record the number of birds of each species seen inside the count circle. You can also record birds seen outside the circle, but keep that list separate.
- Record conditions and location information: location of count circle (address), habitat type (kind of vegetation and amount), number and kinds of feeders and baths, weather, temperature, and beginning and ending times.
- Send your report, your information from steps 3 and 4, as well as your name, mailing address, email address and phone number, to John Hewston, Natural Resources Building, Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA 95521. Or submit your information online at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a few months John will send you the compiled results.