Project Feederwatch


(This 816th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 19, 2006.)


I continue to be impressed by the outreach activities of the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University. The Lab is an organization of professionals, some of them enjoying university professorial appointments, but many of their activities involve people they so aptly term citizen scientists, amateurs who contribute observational data. The voluminous information so acquired is analyzed to provide temporal and geographic comparisons and analyses of bird populations that are then made available to the public. Most of this data acquisition is managed by computer, thus the results may be accessed instantaneously.


Among the many Lab projects are the field trip reports gathered on eBird, the cavity nesting bird surveys of the Birdhouse Network, the annual four day (next year February 16-19) national survey of winter birds called the Great Backyard Bird Count, and the nesting habitat studies of the Birds in Forested Landscapes program.


Today I focus on the Lab's Project Feederwatch, a timely topic for this time of year when many readers are stocking their bird feeders to serve this year's winter visitors.


Project FeederWatch is an outgrowth of an activity begun at Ontario, Canadašs Long Point Bird Observatory. Dr. Erica Dunn established the Ontario Feeder Bird survey there in 1976. More than 500 observers participated in that program over the following ten years.


At the end of that period, however, the Long Point team decided that a continental survey would more accurately monitor the large-scale movements of winter birds. They contacted the Cornell Lab, and the project was taken over by Lab staff, drawing heavily on the experience and expertise of the Long Point group but extending participation to thousands of birders already associated with the Lab across North America.


During that first year, more than 4000 people enrolled. FeederWatchers represented every mainland state in the U.S. and most provinces in Canada. Now the number of observers involved in the project has grown to more than 15,000. Today, Project FeederWatch is a cooperative research activity of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Bird Studies Canada (formerly the Long Point Bird Observatory), the National Audubon Society, and the Canadian Nature Federation. It is now a proven tool for monitoring the distribution and abundance of winter bird populations.


Participation in Project Feederwatch is open but there is a small fee of $15 ($12 to Lab members). You can sign up through the project website or by mail to Project Feederwatch, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, P.O. Box 11, Ithaca NY 14851-0011. The fees pay for maintenance of the web site, managing the database, data analysis, interaction with participants, printing and shipping project materials, and dissemination of the information learned from the data. They also help cover the cost of publishing two newsletters for project participants: BirdScope for U.S. participants and BirdWatch Canada for Canadians.


Contributing is easy and can be done by computer or by mail. You identify and describe your site, identify and count birds visiting your feeders on pairs of days, and submit your data on the forms the Lab provides. Although those who have many bird visitors have the most fun, even those who record few birds contribute to our knowledge.


According to Lab staff, here are some things the survey provides: long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance; the timing and extent of winter irruptions of winter finches and other species; expansions or contractions in the winter ranges of feeder birds; the kinds of foods and environmental factors that attract birds; and how disease is spread among birds that visit feeders.


Consider one example of the evidence that the data contributes. Many birders feel that increasing numbers of birds remain in our area through the winter. The observations of individual birders are limited, however, and tend to focus on less common species. The systematic data of Project Feederwatch respond better to this kind of question.


Two final comments about bird feeding: First, clean your feeders regularly to avoid spreading avian diseases. Once a month, apply a solution of one part bleach, ten parts water. Allow the mixture to set on the feeders for ten minutes, then drain, rinse and dry before refilling.


Second, obey local rat restrictions on bird feeding. While you may consider these laws draconian, they contribute to control of a significant problem.-- Gerry Rising