(This column was first published in the February 2, 2004 issue of The Buffalo News.)
I invite readers of this column who also maintain bird feeders to participate with me in what has come to be called citizen science.
I ask you to communicate to me the maximum numbers of each bird species that visit your feeders this week. I will then compile the data you provide and report back in a future column on what information the survey conveys.
Feeder surveys are not new and mine is based on those carried out by Benjamin Burtt of Syracuse and Allen Benton of Fredonia. I suspect that Burtt's survey was the very first: begun in the winter of 1958-59, it is now in its 44th year. Later feeder counts were initiated in England in 1970 and at Long Point in Ontario, Canada in 1976. Also, I know that a number of readers of this column participate in the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology national survey, but it was only started in 1987. Finally, this survey is unrelated to the Audubon-Cornell Great Backyard Bird Count of later February.
Here is what I ask you to do:
1. This week make a list of the bird species you observe at or near the feeders in your yard. Record on your list the maximum number of individuals of each species you see at one time. (Don't include birds seen away from your home.)
2. At the end of the week (next Sunday, February 8) finalize your list and add any comments you wish to make about unusual observations. Then add your name, address, phone number and the township in which you live.
3. As soon as possible after that, e-mail your information to me at email@example.com or mail it to me at 295 Robinhill Drive, Williamsville, NY 14221-1639. (If you cannot use either of these means, I will also accept phoned lists at 716-689-8301.)
All participants should understand that this is not a contest. Although it will be interesting to receive reports of rare birds, common species like house sparrows and starlings will also serve this survey.
Small counts are important too. I regularly receive inquiries from readers asking why the numbers of birds visiting their feeders have gone down significantly. We may determine if those concerns represent a regional phenomenon or simply local and hopefully temporary aberrations.
Why now? While we are, of course, well past the December 22 Winter Solstice, most of us would agree that we are now in the dead of winter. In only a week or two birds will begin to return, but those smart enough to leave are long gone and those early birds - the tree swallows and those big, bright-breasted Labrador robins - are not yet here.
I hope to repeat this count at this time each winter and this year's data will serve as a kind of baseline. I expect, however, we'll learn some interesting information from even this first survey.
Here are a few of the things that feeder surveys have already substantiated:
The numbers of many winter visitors from the far north fluctuate. Red-breasted nuthatches, for example, seem to be more common in alternate years. Other species like redpolls, pine siskins, purple finches, and pine and evening grosbeaks are completely absent for many years but then show up in surprising numbers.
Southern visitors, the so-called half-hardies, have increased probably due to the feeders themselves. We now regularly feed birds like cardinals, tufted titmice and red-bellied woodpeckers. Even mockingbirds have begun to appear recently.
I urge everyone who can do so to participate in this project, but I particularly encourage students and teachers who manage feeders outside their classrooms to take part.-- Gerry Rising