Thanksgiving Bird Count takes only an hour

Wild Turkeys

Some backyards do have Wild Turkeys for the Thanksgiving Bird Count. These were seen at Guernsey State Park in Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

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.

Feeding stations

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 thanksgivingbirdcount@gmail.com.

In a few months John will send you the compiled results.

Winter bird survey review

Townsend's Solitaire

The Townsend’s Solitaire is a winter visitor in Cheyenne, Wyo. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published March 20, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Winter bird surveys contrast with backyard experience.”
2014 Update: Visit Project FeederWatch at http://feederwatch.org, the Great Backyard Bird Count at http://gbbc.birdcount.org/ and the Christmas Bird Count at http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count.

By Barb Gorges

“….For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come….”
Song of Solomon

Though the spring equinox is today, we Wyomingites hope to have a few snowstorms yet. In our climate, our definition of spring as an improvement over winter does not include the cessation of precipitation, especially in a drought year.

However, a sure sign of spring is always the house finches’ increased singing—males advertising for mates and defending territories.

But before rhapsodizing about spring, let’s review the winter.

My own backyard has been abysmal. I count birds every Saturday and Sunday November through March for Project FeederWatch. Though I don’t watch the feeders every minute, I’ve been hard pressed to count more than one or two birds per weekend the last couple months.

Last weekend I thought I would finally have a chance to check the “no birds observed” box on the report form, but then about 5:30 p.m. Sunday there was a flutter around the sunflower seed feeder for a few minutes. Five house finches, one house sparrow plus a crow flying overhead seemed like a bonanza.

I think back to other winters and wonder if the lack of birds is due to mild weather, an unseen predator (there was a sharp-shinned hawk in the backyard tree last week), or some avian complaint about our seed and feeders.

In desperation, we’ve finally put out millet, hoping to attract house sparrows so that their loud chatter will advertise our yard.

Last week’s mail brought the Thanksgiving Bird Count report for 2002. Twenty reports were submitted from Wyoming listing a total of 27 species.

Many were birds common to Cheyenne backyards (each species name is followed by the number of individuals observed statewide): house sparrow (240), house finch (94), American goldfinch (46), pine siskin (29), black-capped chickadee (18), rock dove (17), mountain chickadee (11), dark-eyed junco (9), blue jay (8), European starling (7), red-breasted nuthatch (4), northern flicker (3), evening grosbeak (3), downy woodpecker (2).

Obviously, some Wyoming backyards are more rural and were able to add these species to the report: Canada goose (45), western scrub jay (32), gray-crowned rosy finch (21), black-billed magpie (9), song sparrow (8), Cassin’s finch (8), horned lark (7), American tree sparrow (7), Steller’s jay (3), ring-necked pheasant (1) and Clark’s nutcracker (1).

The sage sparrow (11) and spotted towhee (1) appeared to have put off migration past their typical departure dates.

The Christmas Bird Count isn’t very indicative of backyard birds since we go out along the creeks and lakes looking for birds, although the flock of Eurasian-collared doves, first timers on the Cheyenne CBC, is still showing up regularly at the same feeder.

The Great Backyard Bird Count, held Feb. 14-17, does not restrict observers to their backyards as evidenced by 69 species reported for Wyoming including bald eagles and trumpeter swans.

The top 10 species reported in Wyoming (each followed by the number of reports it appeared in and the total number of individuals reported) were: house sparrow (64, 1590), house finch (50, 580), black-capped chickadee (49, 171), European starling (35, 1240), pine siskin (33, 775), northern flicker (31, 47), downy woodpecker (31,
50), black-billed magpie (28, 98), American goldfinch (26, 294) and common raven (10, 70).

The four reports submitted for Cheyenne list only Canada goose, gadwall, mallard, rock dove, downy woodpecker, American crow, white-breasted nuthatch, dark-eyed junco and house sparrow.

No house finches. Four reports are not a good statistical sampling, but in view of my own backyard experience this winter, maybe it means something. You can check the data at http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc/results.htm.

Project Feederwatch data is also interesting, however, it needs to be examined species by species. The reports submitted online are already available, but it will be months before the results from observers using paper forms will show.

I find it fascinating to look at the animated maps and see how observations for a species change over the course of the winter. Check for yourself at  http://birds.cornell.edu/PFWMaproom.html.

Meanwhile, the millet we put out is attracting squirrels. House finches are singing in the neighborhood and I hope to hear them soon in my own yard.

Winter’s over when juncos take wing

Junco

Dark-eyed Juncos come in a variety of “races” and hybrids. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published March 21, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Winter’s over when the juncos take wing.”

2014 Update: Explore data at Project FeederWatch: http://feederwatch.org/.

By Barb Gorges

How can you tell it’s spring in Wyoming? The birds’ water dish isn’t frozen over every morning. House finches are proclaiming breeding season. Tiny blades of green show under the lawn’s brown thatch. And it has started snowing more often.

For me, this winter will be remembered for the Townsend’s solitaire flitting about the neighbor’s junipers, eating berries.

[It even appeared in our backyard once, performing aerial maneuvers for our dinner guests. Last week I was still hearing the solitaire’s one-note call, but any day now it should switch over to its breeding warble, if it’s the male. I’m not sure what sounds the female makes in the spring.]

For everybody else in the Cheyenne birding community, the bird of the winter has been the red-bellied woodpecker, our unexpected visitor from the east. I’ve heard reports now from half a dozen people who’ve seen it. Will it stay in Cheyenne year round because it is a year round resident in its normal range, or will it get wanderlust again, which is what brought it here in the first place?

I knew it was nearly spring when John Hewston sent me the results of the 2001 Thanksgiving Bird Count. He said once he doesn’t use computers.

This year 451 counts were reported from the 12 westernmost states (no reports from Hawaii this time), from 255 different cities and towns.

The 10 most numerous birds to be reported in those 15-foot diameter count circles were, in descending order: house sparrow, house finch, pine siskin, dark-eyed junco, mourning dove, black-capped chickadee, California quail, American goldfinch, European starling and white-crowned sparrow.

The quail making the list can probably be attributed to almost a quarter of the reports coming from Hewston’s home state, California.

In Wyoming, 23 reports were submitted from seven different cities and towns. We had eight counts from Cheyenne.

Our state’s top 10 list was a little different, with the last two entries reflecting our location in the Rocky Mountains: house sparrow (610), house finch (174), pine siskin (73), American goldfinch (48), rock dove (pigeon) (39), dark-eyed junco (29), black-capped chickadee (28), European starling (22), black-billed magpie (21) and mountain chickadee (18).

Twenty other species made up the rest of the Wyoming list. All were typical winter species, sparrows, woodpeckers, jays, nuthatches, except for three. Six sage sparrows, three mourning doves and a yellow-rumped warbler were pushing their luck sticking around Wyoming in late November.

No crows were on the list. Evidently no one in Thermopolis was counting. The city now estimates there are 3,200 of these corvids causing civic problems.

Let me know if you’d like to see a copy of the Thanksgiving report.

The Project Feederwatch season, November through March, is almost over. Four of us in Cheyenne have been submitting reports online.

Four is a good number of participants, compared to six in New York City, as reported by a map of FeederWatch locations. It’s also surprising. The image of the Manhattan skyline notwithstanding, much of the city has plenty of yards and places for bird feeders.

This winter, house finches, dark-eyed juncos and house sparrows have been my regular visitors, with the occasional starling or crow.

I’ve had other species visit only once or twice: sharp-shinned hawk, northern flicker, blue jay, Townsend’s solitaire (I don’t count seeing it in the neighbor’s yard) and American goldfinch. No chickadees or nuthatches this year, a local aberration, since they have been visiting other people’s feeders.

I’ve appreciated the variety of subspecies and hybrids of juncos because it felt like I had more kinds of birds. But when warm weather comes, the juncos will head out, either north or up to the mountains.

And when they head out for good, that’s when I know winter is truly finished again.