Wherever you live in the U.S., autumn is a time of shifting bird populations. Many species that have been up here in the northern tier states for the spring and summer have left for warmer climes. We in the north will see some new species coming south from Canada, but their makeup varies from year to year based on food availability up north. The number of bird species we see for the next five months will be greatly reduced and while this can be disappointing for avid birdwatchers, there are other ways to keep up our interest.
Project FeederWatch is a program designed by a Canadian Bird Observatory and now associated with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This is a great Citizen Science project that helps scientists understand more about the bird populations in North America during the winter months. Just by looking out your windows and recording what birds you see and how many are at the bird feeders at one time you can help Scientists at Cornell measure any changes that are occurring in the winter range and populations of specific bird species. This data can then be entered into computers which analyze the short and long term trends in the distribution and abundance of birds in North America
While hundreds of birds species head south of our borders, more than 100 remain. The data gathered by Feeder Watch participants can provide an insight into the population of birds that can’t be found by any other available method. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Feeder Watch in Canada and the 30th here in the U.S. This sort of long term data can show a decline in a particular species and once bird population scientists see this trend, they can evaluate aspects of the species habitat needs and other factors that might be causing the decline. For example is the necessary food supply lacking? Has the habitat changed where the birds breed or overwinter? Or is it competition from other species for the same resources? It can also show whether a species has moved from one part of the country to another. FeederWatch data provide weekly changes in bird distribution and abundance across the United States and Canada. Importantly, this data tells us where birds are, as well as where they are not. This crucial information enables scientists to piece together the most accurate population maps.
We know that bird populations can vary sharply from year to year. A downward trend for three to five years may not necessarily indicate overall population decline, but a long term decline can alert scientists to threats that a species may be facing. An example would be the Painted Bunting in Florida, which showed a steady decline beginning in the early 1980’s. Along with data from the annual Breeding Bird Survey that also showed a decline at a rate of about 4 percent per year, the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission began to monitor the population to learn how to better protect them for the future.
Beginning in early November through April, people all over North America will begin counting the birds at their feeders. It is really quite simple and if you are one of the millions who feed birds through the winter months I highly encourage you to join the fun.
The time investment is minimal and since you are probably already looking out the windows to see what birds are at the feeder, all you have to do is count the numbers of each species at one particular time and write it down on a piece of paper. Throughout two consecutive days of your choosing you do this. You do this every week, or as often as you are able.
The more and varied your bird feeders and the type of bird seed you put out, the more variety and numbers of birds you should see. It may also encourage you to plant more bird friendly shrubs and trees come next spring. A bird bath is another attractive feature, though needs to be heated in order work in northern regions.
Join the ranks of citizen scientists and be an advocate for the birds.