For the birds, and for science too

Bird Feeder
Ice on the feeder doesn't get in the way of hungry birds in winter. Remember to keep your feeders full. File Photo by Peter Simon

By Laura Wainwright - February 1, 2007

My eyes were finally opened to the bird world when a friend came to dinner last summer and we took an evening walk to the beach. She is an avid birder and shares what she knows easily. By listening, she knew there were juvenile chickadees nearby, which had just been nudged from their nests.

She introduced me to a new world I'd lived alongside but had not entered. This walk kindled a desire to learn more about birds.

There's been a feeder in our yard for many years, but I haven't paid attention to who visits. I've made noise about learning to bird-watch, but I've shied away from doing it out of a fear it would be too difficult. Thanks to my husband, I heard about Project Feeder Watch this fall. The simple structure it provides helped me start learning about my backyard neighbors.

squirrel
This clever squirrel took full advantage of the food supply. Photo by Julian K. Robinson

Project Feeder Watch is a partnership of birdwatchers and scientists. Bird watchers all across North America record the species of birds and numbers of each species at their backyard feeders and submit the data online. Scientists use the data to study changes in distribution and abundance of feeder birds over time, habitat features, and the effect of disease, fire, and other events on bird populations.

Begun in Canada in the 1970s, Project Feeder Watch expanded into an international survey managed by Cornell University in the late 1980s. Now, it is the most comprehensive database of bird populations in the world.

Bird learning curve

On my first week, while a cup of morning tea brewed, I went outside to fill the feeder. Already I noticed things in a new way. As soon as the feeder was full, the chickadees started to chatter. And they're still chattering now, in midwinter. Are they spreading the word that the food is out? Bold, they are the first to arrive, followed shortly by the others: house finches, sparrows, English and song, jays, cardinals, and titmice. Were they always using the feeder, but I wasn't watching so closely?

Recognizing some of the most ordinary birds is challenging, because they no longer have their familiar summer plumage. A purple finch stumped me, because it was now brown. Having cracked that code, I realized I was looking at goldfinches, still here, but no longer yellow. My learning curve is steep and will continue to be. Looking is hard, but fascinating.

I can't believe how much fun I'm having. Raising the bar by making the commitment to record my data has finally pushed me to do what I flirted with and avoided all along. Paying attention.

Project Feeder Watch helps scientists, I am sure. But it also helps ordinary people, like me, open their eyes and establish a renewed sense of wonder and awe at the miraculous variety and beauty of the natural life that surrounds us.

You may join Project Feeder Watch. You have until the end of February to participate this year. To sign up, go to www. birds.cornell.edu/pfw or call (800) 843-2473(BIRD). The cost of participating is $15. After you sign up, you will receive a packet, including lovely posters of common feeder birds and explicit directions for observing and recording.

The web site, full of interesting information, is available whether you are a member or not. It includes suggestions for types of food and feeders, articles on birds and data on birds in our area and any other in North America. Don't think you need to be computer savvy to join. While it's easy to record your data online, you can also phone it in.

The people at Project Feeder Watch make participating as simple as possible. There is no required time for observation. It can be as little as a few minutes or as long as you want. It is fine if you can't record your data every week. Do it as often as you can. If you have questions, someone is available and your call will be answered immediately or returned promptly.

If you've wanted to learn about birds but haven't taken that first step, try Project Feeder Watch. It's for the birds.

Laura Wainwright is a freelance writer who lives in West Tisbury.