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In recent weeks I’ve gone on about bears, deer, upland birds and all the things that are important to fall hunters, and now that those and other hunting season are underway we can look to other things to amuse ourselves and occupy our outdoor hours. Hunting is certainly the focus of the season for most outdoorsmen, but there is more for the average wildlife lover to consider as winter looms.
I’ve also mentioned here many times the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology backyard bird studies that help scientists figure out not only which birds are out there but how they spend their time, where they go and how they are faring in this ever-changing world of ours. Thanks to the help of bird-feeding enthusiasts from across North America, researchers are learning that conventional “wisdom” is not always correct. Remember when no one ever saw a turkey vulture, a mockingbird or even a Canada goose? Our natural world is forever in flux and, with the help of backyard bird feeders everywhere, the nuances of change can be tracked and studied on a daily basis.
Scientists are excited about the program because there is really no other way for them to gather the huge volume of observations that come pouring in from project participants. This is an opportunity for scientists to see trends in bird movements, wintering habits and population fluctuations. It’s also an opportunity for participants to have some input on what is happening with the birds in their own backyards.
In the next few months, the 2004-05 Cornell’s “Project FeederWatch” program will begin. There are over 15,000 participants in the program. They count the numbers and kinds of birds that visit their winter bird feeders and report their observations on paper forms or over the Internet to the Cornell lab. The observations are combined so that scientists can determine the population status and distribution of the nation’s birds over time and across their North American winter range. The Cornell site is a “live” site, which means that data is entered as it comes in. Trends in bird movement and winter range change almost as you watch, an interesting switch from the “we’ll let you know next year” contribution approach.
One interesting thing the study has revealed is that the traditional “birds fly South in winter” wisdom may not be as accurate as was once believed. For example, hummingbirds were always thought to disappear to tropical climates long before the last leaves of fall hit the ground, but reports of hummingbirds wintering in the Southeast along the Gulf Coast (hundreds of miles to the north of their traditional winter range) are increasing. In the Northeast, robins and bluebirds are typically regarded as a sure sign of spring, but Project FeederWatch participants have confirmed sightings of these species throughout the region – during any month of the year.
“The counts submitted by volunteers are forcing us to re-examine the conventional wisdom regarding the whereabouts of birds in winter,” said Dr. David Bonter, a Cornell researcher and Project FeederWatch coordinator.
Bonter said that participants are finding that, although not seed-eaters, robins and bluebirds can be attracted to feeders in winter offering fruits, mealworms and possibly suet.
Each year more participants share their observations with scientists, and each year more is being learned about bird populations and their dynamics. Project FeederWatchers provided nearly 5.6 million bird observations last season. The cumulative FeederWatch database will top 1 million checklists submitted during the project’s 18 season, which begins next month.
There is no deadline to participate and not much work involved, either. You just sit by your window and, with a cup of coffee in one hand and a pencil in the other, you simply record the number and species of birds you see coming in to your feeder. There’s no rush to submit data or file reports. Just sit back and enjoy the show. All you’re doing is letting the world know the kinds and numbers of birds there are in your area this winter.
If you have been feeding birds for many years, you know that you are going to see some birds in the yard that most other folks never see, and sooner or later you’re going to have that one-in-a-million sighting that will keep you talking all winter. My favorite sighting of all time was the flock of indigo buntings that swarmed in one day, a perfect complement to the goldfinches, blackbirds and grosbeaks that were already shoulder to shoulder at the sunflower seed. These bright blue birds didn’t stay long and never came back, but I felt privileged to make the observation. These are the kinds of things that go on when you put up a backyard feeder, and Cornell’s bird researchers want to know what you see in your backyard this winter.
People of all ages, skills and interests are invited to help Cornell scientists better understand local bird populations. To learn more about Project FeederWatch, long onto www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw, or call the Cornell Lab or Ornithology at 800-843-2473. There is a $15 enrollment fee ($12 for Lab members) to help defray the cost of materials, which includes a full-color poster of common feeder birds, a calendar, the FeederWatch’s handbook, instructions, access to the online data entry system and a one-year subscription to BirdScope, the newsletter of the Cornell Lab or Ornithology.
If nothing else, visit the Cornell site just to see what is going on in the world of birding. The site includes lots of information about birds, new developments in birding and even some live WebCam sites where you can watch the progress of nesting birds in various parts of the world.
By the way, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a not-for-profit membership institution dedicated to interpreting and conserving the earth’s biological diversity through research, education and citizen science with a focus on the birds of the world. Log onto the Cornell Web site and see where it leads you. And don’t forget to restock your feeder – another long winter is just around the corner!
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