Like many holiday visitors, winter birds are also seeking a free meal. Bird feeders provide food for wintering birds when berries, seeds and insects are less available. As a result, people with active bird feeders can collect valuable information on winter bird distribution and abundance, allowing biologists to track large-scale movements and monitor long-term trends.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Audubon Society, Bird Studies Canada and the Canadian Nature Federation are collaborating on a continent-wide, citizen science program, Project FeederWatch, to collate backyard observations of feeder birds during winter months.
Project FeederWatch is for anyone interested in birds, the outdoors or nature. It's a great activity to do with your family, youth group or classroom. An interdisciplinary science curriculum based on FeederWatch has been developed for classroom use. For more information see the Web site birds.cornell.edu/cfw. The program is suitable for homebound individuals, rural residents and school groups, and senior citizens.
People and households already studying birds at feeders are ideal candidates for this program. More than 15,000 people count birds for Project FeederWatch, assembling the world's largest research team studying feeder bird populations from coast to coast.
Data collection occurs once every two weeks from November to April. Each participant selects "bird-count days" and watches birds for all or part of those days. Data submission forms are completed and either mailed to the Cornell Lab or entered online; data collection is slightly different depending on the data submission method. Data are summarized and analyzed by the Cornell Lab.
Project results are available on the FeederWatch Web site to all participants, and can be viewed by city, state or region. Although the count period has already begun for this season, participants can still join to contribute to this winter's bird count.
In Alaska, many people successfully attract birds to feeders, but there are only 86 Alaskan participants in Project FeederWatch. Currently, there is a statewide initiative by the Boreal Partners in Flight working group to educate people on the program and encourage participation, allowing Alaska biologists and residents to retrieve data on winter bird distributions in our state.
Information from smaller outlying communities, where it is otherwise not collected, is extremely valuable. FeederWatch participants in small towns can help provide a more accurate statewide distribution map.
FeederWatchers have been instrumental in helping biologists document bill deformities in black-capped chickadees in the Anchorage vicinity. The deformed bill prevents the bird from feeding properly. Due to the efficiency of the FeederWatch network in Anchorage, biologists determined distribution of the deformed birds and initiated genetic sampling to investigate potential causes. For more information see the Web site www.absc.usgs.gov/research/bpif. In addition, diseases, such as avian pox, can also be tracked and monitored by participants of Project FeederWatch.
In Southeast Alaska, many problems with bears and bird feeders are alleviated in the winter, making Project FeederWatch especially suitable for people wishing to participate in ongoing research without contributing to local bear problems. An active feeder program in the region will help biologists to detect rare occurrences, disease and deformities and establish a network to address issues as they arise.
Because bears can be present even in winter months, everyone feeding birds in Southeast should follow Alaska Department of Fish and Game guidelines to avoid attracting bears.
Feed birds only from Dec. 1 to April 1, hang feeders out of reach of bears, clean up any seed that falls on the ground, and put out only enough seed that birds will eat before sundown.
Scientists can't be everywhere, but FeederWatchers are. It's easy, it's fun and it's valuable.
To contribute, contact the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at (800) 843-BIRD, or visit the Web site birds.cornell.edu/pfw to learn more about FeederWatch efforts continent-wide. There is an annual participant fee of $15. Membership fees include instructions, feeder handbook with tips on keeping clean, safe, predator-free feeder areas, data submission forms, poster, calendar, one-year subscription to Birdscope, and access to FeederWatch OnLine.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Juneau maintains an address list of local birders and Project FeederWatch participants. In addition, please report injured, diseased or deformed birds to the service. Contact me at 586-7242, or firstname.lastname@example.org, for questions or comments, and to join the list of local FeederWatchers.
Michelle Kissling is a biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, studying and monitoring migratory bird populations in Southeast Alaska. Contact members of Juneau Audubon Society at email@example.com.