Project Feeder Watch is an annual winter-long survey of birds that visit home feeders across North America. It is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada. Participating is easy. All you do is record the species and numbers of birds you see at your feeder every week and submit the data online. This data helps scientists track movements of winter bird populations and understand long-term trends of bird distribution and abundance.
I participated in Project Feeder Watch last year and really enjoyed it. I kept records most weeks and recorded them online. As a beginning birder, this helped me learn my backyard birds. This year, although I signed up to do it again, what with one thing and another (read laziness and distraction) my participation has been poor.
I do fill the feeder each morning. I peek out at the birds and assume I know who's there and all's fine. Some of the excitement at learning new species and participating in the process has worn off. I've stopped paying close attention.
Last week I decided to get back at it and record the birds at the feeder for two days in a row as I had carefully done every week last year. I relearned the lesson I need to learn over and over again about every aspect of life: careful observation is very powerful.
I thought I knew who was visiting the feeder because I assumed it was the same species as last year. My casual observations had confirmed this assumption, but just a few minutes of attentive looking proved me utterly wrong.
Not only are there many more species using the feeder than I realized, their numbers are stable. I have been more blasé this year, but thank goodness I am still dutiful. These birds are regulars who count on me for food. Now I relearn the obvious: it isn't just "chickadees" using the feeder, it's particular chickadees. There are at least three pairs that come every day and I'm sure closer attention will help me recognize individuals.
I assumed the species I had on a regular basis were English sparrow, chickadee, cardinal, and song sparrow. In actuality there were many more: goldfinch, white breasted nuthatch, purple finch, red breasted nuthatch, and did I spot a junco and a white-throated sparrow? Different species eat at different times of the day. Some, like the goldfinches that I thought came rarely, are there consistently. This has been going on daily right outside my kitchen window. Nothing changed except I stopped looking closely.
I'd like to say I've learned my lesson, but I probably haven't. It's easier not to pay attention and to assume I know what's there, dangerous as this is. Noticing teaches us how much attention matters, how much the details matter. Birds are an example but the concept applies to everything from breathing to people to stars to medicine to politics to literature. When we look carefully we see how complex and varied and intrinsically beautiful and intertwined life is. We see it's not just chickadee, but particular chickadee.
For more information on Project Feeder Watch or to join, go online at: birds.cornell.edu/pfw/index.html or call 877-741-3077.
Laura Wainwright is a contributing writer to The Times.