Project Feederwatch is here and seeking citizen scientists
Birders are tough to beat.
A lot of hobbies generate passion among their followers. Each pastime has its diehards.
But the people who watch birds are, in a word, serious.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 45.1 million people watched birds in 2016, the most recent year for which statistics are available. No other species of wildlife had a bigger following.
All of those folks look for birds frequently, too. People averaged bird watching 96 days a year.
Some spent their time on the road, traveling to watch birds. But most — about 86 percent — did their bird watching around home.
Scientists understand that. And, again this year, they're hoping to take advantage of it.
Researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology are conducting Project FeederWatch.
Now more than 20 years old, it monitors bird populations and trends across North America.
"Participants periodically count the birds they see at their feeders and send their counts to Project Feederwatch," Cornell said. "Your bird counts help you keep track of what is happening in your own backyard and help scientists track long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance."
The survey runs from November through April. Participants can count birds at home, nature centers, parks, community areas and elsewhere.
People of all skill levels participate, individually or in groups, such as classrooms, families, nature clubs and the like.
"You can count birds as often as every week, or as infrequently as you like. The schedule is completely flexible," Cornell said. "All you need is a bird feeder, bird bath or plantings that attract birds."
The data collected is important in that it documents where birds are and are not. That can show if and when birds are changing their overwintering grounds, based on climate change, habitat loss or other factors.
It also shines an early light — one that might not be readily apparent otherwise — on population trends.
If a species is in trouble, for example, Project FeederWatch can reveal that.
Data gathered from participants in Florida showed that, starting in the 1980s, winter populations of painted bunting were declining. That prompted additional research and, ultimately, conservation measures.
"So, by combining all they know about a species from monitoring data and intensive research projects, scientists can begin to understand why a species is declining, and to make recommendations for its recovery before it's too late," Cornell said.
Watchers can use the data just for fun, though.
Visitors to the Project FeederWatch site can, for example, track trends in bird populations, by species and region, across time, see where else people are watching for birds, and follow sights, by species and week, over time.
They can also see by year which 25 species were the most common visitors to feeders in their state or providence and in what concentrations.
That tells them whether what they're seeing is unusual.
In Pennsylvania in 2017-18, for example, dark-eyed juncos visited feeders more often than any other bird, usually in groups of five. Northern cardinals, black-capped chickadees, mourning doves and downy woodpeckers rounded out the top five.
But in North Carolina, the top five birds seen are, in order, the northern cardinal, tufted titmouse, Carolina wren, mourning dove and American goldfinch. In Arizona it is the house finch, white-crowned sparrow, lesser goldfinch, mourning dove and house sparrow.
There is a cost to participate in Project FeederWatch. It's $18. But registration gets watchers a "research kit." It includes instructions for participating, as well as a bird identification poster, calendar and more.
Bird watchers also get, at the end of each season, a 16-page year-end report and access to the online version of "Living Bird," Cornell's quarterly birding magazine.
In the end, though, the project is a way to take all of the bird watching that people are so avidly doing anyway and use it for the good of the birds.
"In short, Project FeederWatch data are important because they provide information about bird population biology that cannot be detected by any other available method," Cornell said.