We’ve had some gorgeous fall days, as even I, the winter-hater, have to agree. But one thing that makes winter more bearable is Project FeederWatch. This program is celebrating its 30th year as part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “citizen science” initiatives. I’ve been doing FeederWatch since the autumn of 1991, and only missed a year or two, so I currently have 23 years of data in their database.
It feels good to sit at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and binoculars at hand (and perhaps a cat in my lap) and watch activity at our small backyard bird banquet. We have only six feeders and a birdbath. Everything but one feeder is visible from my kitchen chair. A large sunflower seed feeder stands in a barrel on the patio. Sunflower seed is gobbled up by most of the backyard birds. Beyond it, a tall pole holds three dangling tube feeders (one each for safflower seeds, peanuts, and nyger) and one mounted suet feeder. Woodpeckers and blue jays love the suet and the peanuts, chickadees and finches eat the safflower, while goldfinches and house finches eat the tiny black nyger (thistle) seeds. All scatter when a Cooper’s hawk flies in!
I have to cross the kitchen to see our saucer magnolia in the front yard with its hanging platform feeder. That one holds safflower seeds also. Though the tree is a playground for squirrels, they mostly disdain safflower. Doves and chickadees are its best customers.
Water can be hard for birds to find in winter. Our birdbath is popular with most species, who stop by for a drink or a quick splash. But it’s also a lure for birds that usually don’t come to feeders, like robins and mockingbirds. A heater keeps the water from freezing.
When I’m recording data for Project FeederWatch, I keep track of how many individuals of one species I can see at a time. On a typical winter day when the feeders are busy, there might be three chickadees taking turns flying to the sunflower feeder to carry away a seed. A titmouse stands at the same feeder, holding down a seed with one foot while it hammers away the shell. Ten doves stroll around beneath the feeder, looking for crumbs, while a song sparrow and two white-throated sparrows scuffle through the nearby garden. A red-bellied woodpecker clings to the suet feeder, repelling other boarders, while a red-breasted nuthatch hangs upside-down on the peanut feeder. They all become part of avian history.
Volunteer feeder-watchers across the country provide far more data than Cornell’s ornithologists could collect on their own. There is a $18 annual participation fee for U.S. residents ($15 for Cornell Lab members). The participation fee covers materials, staff support, web design, data analysis, and the year-end report (Winter Bird Highlights). The Lab notes changes in bird numbers, tracks invasions of irruptive species, and documents the way food choices, habitat, and weather can affect the numbers of birds at feeders.
Winter is still my least favorite season, but FeederWatch helps. This year’s FeederWatch season is from November 12 to early April. If you’d like to become one of the annual flock of FeederWatchers, check out the website at www.feederwatch.org for more information.