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Southeast Wild: Feed the birds and help the scientists

Project FeederWatch has built the largest database of feeder-bird populations

Posted: Sunday, November 16, 2003

Now that signs of winter are undeniably creeping down the mountains, it's time to consider the welfare of our resident birds (as well as how to maximize our enjoyment in watching them).

Long, cold winter days, and even more challenging nights, make the season a difficult one for the birds that call Alaska their year-round home. Feeding backyard birds is one way to help them make it through these next months.

Participating in Project FeederWatch is a means of contributing to science while observing these birds.

Project FeederWatch is a winter-long survey operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in partnership with Bird Studies Canada, the National Audubon Society and the Canadian Nature Federation. Now in its 17th year, the project has, through the observations of participants in the United States and Canada, constructed the largest database of North American feeder-bird populations in the world.

The large, long-term database allows scientists, using simple, standardized counts reported by backyard counters, to gain a global understanding of changing bird populations and the factors that drive them.

Participants count two consecutive days each week for as little or as long as they choose, listing the highest number of individuals of each species observed at one time. They then report their findings either online or by mail throughout the months of November to early April.

Anyone with an interest in birds can participate - families, school classes, individuals or groups. A $15 fee covers materials, a newsletter, staffing, Web site management and data analysis. Participants receive a research kit explaining how to count and submit data. It also provides feeding tips. Last year more than 16,000 FeederWatchers took part in the count.

"Participating in Project FeederWatch provides an excellent opportunity for beginning birders to learn our common birds," said Wrangell birder Carol Ross. It can also bring some surprises for experienced birders.

"If I hadn't been monitoring my feeder often count for Project FeederWatch, I would have missed uncommon birds, such as the purple finches that visited our house last year," Ross added.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides this advice for feeding birds:

• Offer a variety of food types.

Black-oil sunflower attracts the greatest number of species and is high in nutrition. Some ground-feeding birds prefer white millet or red milo and tree-feeding species prefer sunflower seed. Squash seeds and pumpkin seeds are other choices.

Bread scraps are fine though they may attract more crows than songbirds as well as rodents or even bears.

Insect-eating birds such as chickadees, woodpeckers and nuthatches can be attracted by peanut butter or suet. There is no evidence that peanut butter causes birds to choke but it can be mixed with corn meal or oatmeal. Beef suet from supermarkets is an excellent high-energy food but should be removed in warm weather. Some commercial suet cakes can be used year-round.

Robins and thrushes can be attracted to your yard with fruit such as dried raisins or currants soaked first in water.

• Birds need water in which to drink and bathe.

Clean feathers are essential for good insulation. An immersion heater will keep water unfrozen during cold spells.

• Clean feeders are important.

Keep feeders free of mold and fungus, which may cause illnesses in birds. Avoid overcrowding at feeders; it may contribute to the spread of disease.

There has been some recent controversy over whether feeding wild birds causes changes in their migratory behavior. According to the Cornell Lab, the clue that most birds use to migrate is the change in day length rather than the availability of food. Also, peak migration time is late summer and fall, a time when natural foods are readily available anyway. So it is unlikely that feeding birds has any effect on their migratory patterns.

Birders of all stripes are in good company. Birding ranks second to gardening as America's favorite pastime. According to a 1997 reporter from the Kaytee Avian Foundation, an estimated 43 percent of U.S. households, or 65 million people, provide food for wild birds.

Much remains to be learned about bird populations, particularly in Alaska. Help expand scientists' understanding of our region's birds while brightening up the winter days for yourself and your backyard visitors. Scientific understanding accretes bit by bit and much remains to be learned about Alaskan birds.

I find it satisfying to know that with my weekly observations I, as a citizen scientist, am incrementally adding to that understanding. And what a great excuse for sitting at my kitchen table and staring out the window!

Note: If you live in an area which bears frequent, wait until late November or December to begin feeding birds.

To join Project FeederWatch, call 800-843-BIRD (United States only) or (607) 254-2473. You can learn more about the project and sign up at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Web site at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw.

• Bonnie Demerjian lives in Wrangell and has participated in Project FeederWatch for six years. Contact the Juneau Audubon Society at http://www.juneau-audubon-society.org.



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