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Birds of a feather winter together

| Sunday, Jan. 11, 2004

Let's get one thing straight: Birds don't need you to survive the winter, so don't hesitate to feed them even if it's you who will be flying south for a couple of weeks.

"I've heard folks say they don't want to start feeding birds in the fall because they go to Florida in the winter," says Bob Leberman, a research ornithologist at Powdermill Nature Reserve near Rector for more than 40 years. "Generally speaking, birds will manage very well. They only get about 20 percent of their diet from feeders, and they're pretty hardy to begin with. Besides, they'll just go to your neighbor's feeder."

Leberman was marking his last day of "full-time" employment on New Year's Eve at the facility near Rector, where he has been researching and teaching about birds since establishing the banding program in 1961.

The Bird Banding Station at Powdermill is a valued field station of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

In his "semiretirement," Leberman plans to update a book he wrote, "Birds of the Ligonier Valley."

Even on his last official day on the job, Leberman didn't let an interview interrupt his usual routine of checking on birds that had drifted into a banding-station trap.

He was joined by Robert Mulvihill, bird bander and field ornithologist, and Mike Lanzone, assistant field ornithology projects coordinator.

As he talked, Leberman retrieved five birds, each flapping within individual paper bags.

A rowdy, young female cardinal expressed her displeasure with Leberman by pinching his finger.

"It really hurts," Mulvihill said, as Leberman grimaced.

There is little pain in birding for most of the 3 million Pennsylvania residents who consider themselves enthusiasts, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Commission.

In fact, this hobby places a premium on pleasure.

"The state ranks third in the number of birders," says Mulvihill, who is leading a team of specialist researchers -- including Lanzone -- and volunteers compiling the second Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas. "Only New York and California have more residents who call themselves birders."

The birds western Pennsylvanians are likely to see at the backyard feeder are the ones capable of enduring the winter weather. Some wintering residents consider this region "south" of their usual home territory.

According to Project Feeder Watch, sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the 10 birds most commonly observed at Pennsylvania feeders are the dark-eyed junco, mourning dove, tufted titmouse, northern cardinal, blue jay, white-breasted nuthatch, downy woodpecker, house finch, American goldfinch and black-capped chickadee.

More locally, the Christmas Bird Count of 2002 in Rector turned up, among others, 388 American crows, 355 Canada geese, 339 black-capped chickadees, 308 house sparrows, 180 dark-eyed juncos, 155 Northern cardinals, 167 tufted titmice and more than 150 species of finches.

In all, 3,540 birds were counted on that day either by professionals or volunteers.

"Some people would like to just put out the feed that is most likely to draw just the species they want, like the cardinals or finches," says Leberman, with a chuckle. "I feed them all, but bird feeding is definitely something of a personal nature."

Blue jays (145 made the count) and European starlings (470) aren't always high on the list of backyard birders because they are aggressive species who chase other gentler, kinder birds away from the feeders.

Still, the jay is considered a handsome bird for its bright-blue coloring.

Leberman and Lanzone say sunflower seeds and black Niger seed (thistle seed) are most likely to lure cardinals and finches to your feeders.

During the winter, Lanzone uses a suet mixture with peanut butter, cornmeal and cracked corn to provide a diet "high in carbohydrates that is good fuel for the birds. Each bird handles the extreme temperatures in its own way. Some of them will gorge themselves in anticipation of not knowing where the next meal will come from. Others take away seeds and put them in a place where only they can find them."

"The point in all of this, though, is that people feed birds for their own pleasure," Leberman says. "Birds can live without our help. Yes, they supplement their diets with feeders, but they are hardy and they will manage during the winter. Feeding them helps them, but mostly it is a source of enjoyment for us."

Birders enjoy the social aspect of their hobby as well, accounting for the popularity of such groups as the Westmoreland Bird and Nature Club, and the Three Rivers Birding Club.

"We formed our club in 2001," says Jack Solomon, president of the Three Rivers Birding Club. "We knew there were clubs in Westmoreland and Indiana counties, for example, and there sure seemed to be plenty of birders in Allegheny County as well."

Solomon was active with the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania before agreeing to lead the TRBC.

"I've always liked nature, and I remember as a child when we'd go for walks in Frick Park," Solomon says. "I grew up in Homewood-Brushton, and there just seemed to be a lot to look for at Frick. I guess I got the fever when I was about 30 years old and went on a nature tour of Acadia National Park (Maine), and it was just OK until a guy let us look through a scope, and that's when the fire was ignited right then and there.

"I didn't even have binoculars then, but I've learned that birding is extremely difficult if not impossible without binoculars."

TRBC offers several outings, from local Pittsburgh venues like Frick Park, to Presque Isle State Park in Erie, and to Cape May, N.J.

"We have some young teens in our club, but it's really mostly people from ages 30 to 60, more than 200 members," Solomon says. "Some are or have been hunters. Some are just people who enjoy nature - the plants and animals.

"The long answer is that birds hold a special place in all of nature because they can fly. Flight is an amazing thing. Add to that the fact that birds can be showy and pretty - although that's to impress each other. Still, it's that same beauty that we can appreciate," Solomon says.

"Some people like the bright and distinct colors; others look for the slight change in hue from one species to another. I think it's all about the knowledge of nature in some way.

"A century or so ago, a lot of human life was in close contact with the outdoors. ... You needed to know what you could eat and when was the good time to catch it. It really was a matter of survival to understand the outdoors.

"The short answer is, birding is fun. It's as simple as that. It's like trying to ask a golfer what's fun about hitting a little ball around a field and then into a little hole. You can't explain it; you just know that it's fun."

Mulvihill says birding not only offers fun, but it makes "citizen science" possible. "You look out a window in your back yard, see a bird, check your field guide, and then you write down what you see - the date, time of day, weather conditions. All of that is data collection. All of that is science.

"Cornell University (Lab of Ornithology) is a major proponent of citizen science. Birders can just log onto the Web site to see how they can participate. ... They can volunteer to participate in scientific projects," Mulvihill says, adding that it is also possible now to eBird online. Participants can record data and have access to the data of others. "It helps everyone to learn about birds," he says.

One of the Audubon Society's most recognized events is the Christmas Bird Count. It began on Christmas Day in 1900 when 27 bird-watchers counted all the birds they identified in 25 established locations.

Today, more than 50,000 volunteers count birds in 2,000 different locations across the Western Hemisphere. The count is taken Dec. 14 to Jan. 5.

The society says the observations "create a broad-scale picture of where the birds are in early winter, and how many there are. Because the count has run every year for more than 100 years, these observations are invaluable in determining how bird populations have changed and how they are changing right now," Mulvihill says.

Ornithology is one area, Mulvihill says, "where nonprofessionals have contributed to the science ... and it's fun."

Both Leberman, 66, and Lanzone, 28, had their feathers ruffled for the first time when they were kids.

"My first interest was butterflies," says Lanzone, a native of Rochester, N.Y. "When I became discouraged with that, I became quite interested in bird-watching and eventually in bird-banding.

"The great part of the field of ornithology is that there are a lot of jobs on all levels. You are frequently in the field, and you can often travel as part of your job. It really is fun, and you get to work outside most of the time," Lanzone says.

Leberman, a Meadville, Crawford County native, became a bird-watcher as a kid. "I'd always walk in the woods and see these birds. Then I joined the Junior Audubon Society in seventh or eighth grade. It probably became a serious hobby in high school."

In the summer of 1961, he arrived at Powdermill for a banding demonstration and now, the facility is recognized internationally for its bird-banding project.

"We once had an American redstart warbler that also had color bands, which we hadn't seen," Leberman says. "We found out it had been banded on one of the Keys outside Cuba. Right now, we're looking into whether one of the birds we banded here was found in California. It doesn't seem possible, since most of what we see travels up and down the East Coast. But still ...

"I think some people might think I'm crazy," Leberman adds as he peers out a window of the banding lab at a popular platform feeder. "But then again, some people are probably envious that this is how I've been able to spend my days."

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