Project FeederWatch Summary: Winter 2019-2020

Anna Morris, VINS Lead Environmental Educator

As we spring into a new season, most people (myself included) are not sorry to seeing the slush and ice give way to new things – wildflowers, warm weather, and most of all, singing birds. But it is also time to say farewell, for another year at least, to one of my favorite citizen science projects: Project FeederWatch.

Project FeederWatch is run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and has for more than 30 years been gathering data from backyard bird-watchers around North America about their winter feeder visitors. Dozens of scientific publications are made possible by the observations gathered from volunteers who took some time each week to note down on FeederWatch’s datasheets how many and what species of birds visited their feeders. Several other studies have branched out from this, inviting FeederWatchers to take special note of finches with eye disease, or aggressive interactions between birds at feeders.

Project FeederWatch

At the VINS Nature Center, we watched our feeders, located between the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation and our main office building, from December through February, and took official counts each Friday and Saturday. Each count is a 2-day period separated by at least 5 days, and during each count period we managed to spot an average 32 birds, which is about average for our area and our specific count site. This winter we saw 17 unique species, but Black-capped Chickadees, American Tree Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Mourning Doves were our most frequent visitors.

Our citizen science volunteer, Aine Devine (who has the distinction of being VINS’s youngest volunteer), had this to say about her experiences this winter:

“When I work with Feederwatch, I go outside and stand with my back against a post almost under a red berry bush and melt myself into it, standing as still as the post and not moving my head, only my eyes darting around after the birds, watching them eating out of the feeders: the red squirrels doing handstands in the green-roofed feeder, the green-roofed feeder growing a tail; the tree sparrows pecking around on the ground; the chickadees, popping around, their bodies small enough to fit in the palm of my hand if they would let me; the mourning doves, flaring like sunrise. I count how many birds of each species I see in the feeders. I don’t say, ‘I saw a chickadee, it flew into a bush. I saw another chickadee fly out of a bush without another chickadee around.’ I don’t then say I saw two chickadees. I say I saw one chickadee because it’s probably the same, but at a different time. So I count the largest group of chickadees or other birds that I see. With the data sheet, I write on it what time it is, what the weather is, the temperature, the precipitation, the snow depth, and then I write down the species and the largest group of that bird.

“One of my favorite birds to watch at the feeders is the tree sparrow. It’s interesting how the tree sparrows look from inside at the window like juncos, but when I come outside and look close to them, they look like a bit of brush, a dead leaf, a vine, packed together into the shape of a bird. I love that pattern on their feathers, of the dry bracken and vine and brush. I can really see their protective coloration when I’m up close, a bit of bark and bracken flapping wings and flying. I like to think about what Bill Coperthwaite wrote about beauty. A thing holds more beauty if everyone can experience it and if it comes from a good thing. Tree sparrows are common and they are wild and free creatures. Some people think of value as being in scarce things, but I like to think about it being in things that are common. Tree sparrows are something that is common and everyone can see the flying dry bracken brush if they simply go outside and are still.”

According to the 2019 study that documented the precipitous decline of birds in North America (a loss of 3 billion individuals since 1970), the Dark-eyed Junco is a bird that has experienced extreme losses. About 1 out of every 3 Dark-eyed Juncos has disappeared from the population at large in the last 48 years—this for a bird usually reliable and common at winter feeders across the country. During this count season, our feeders hosted on average 6.7 Dark Eyed Juncos per count, whereas across Vermont, the average was 4.7 birds. It appears we are a bit of a hotspot, and we hope to be able to continue to track trends in Dark-eyed Junco populations for scientists in the years to come.

Project FeederWatch

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