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Thursday, October 22, 2015


The feeding of songbirds is incredibly popular in Niagara County. A majority of rural homes have one or more bird feeders. This writer maintains two sunflower stations, a nyjer feeder, and a suet basket. It’s birdwatchers like us who allow every hardware and feed store on this end of the county to sell literally tons of seed each season.

Bird feeding makes for a nice pastime in our long winters -- many of the visitors, like cardinals and blue jays, add a lot of color to what can sometimes be a depressing winter landscape.  Most people don’t know that it can also be a tool for science. By monitoring what species of birds and how many of each visit feeders, ornithologists can track any number of factors, such as irruptions of birds, the spread of disease, and population declines.

While the scientists can’t watch the bird activity from everyone’s kitchen window, you can watch from yours and share your observations with them. This is done through the FeederWatch program, which is run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada.

Feederwatch began in Canada in 1976 and 10 years later its scope was expanded to all of North America. What started as a simple endeavor with 500 participants has grown into a mammoth project that sees 20,000 citizen scientists sharing their observations every year. The Feederwatch staff of six takes in all the data from those observations and use it to analyze trends and, in turn, drive their peers in the bird sciences and conservation to conduct studies and implement environmental policy.

It’s a critical program that does have great merit. The Feederwatch team likes to use the painted bunting as an example. Feederwatch data from Florida showed that the winter population of the bunting declined steadily starting in the late-1980s, at an alarming rate of 4 percent per year. Those findings led the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission to begin a systematic monitoring program of bunting populations so they could learn how to protect them and save them from becoming endangered.

It’s quite easy to lend them a hand in tracking birds. You register with Feederwatch at their website which, despite your volunteerism, requires an $18 participation fee which is necessary to keep the program alive, after all, it’s a non-profit (for that, you will also receive the annual report and the regular Cornell Lab newsletter). From there, you create your own profile that identifies your observation site and its location. That site must be one that attracts birds from something that you have provided, be it bird feeders, bird baths, or plantings. Over the course of two consecutive days of each week (most birders choose the weekend), you record what species of birds visited your yard and how many of a specific species were present at one time. This is done mid-November to early-April, typically the period when most northerners keep their feeders filled.

Beyond just entering data, the Feederwatch community has a lot to offer participants. There are blogs, photo contests, profiled observers, an email newsletter, a Facebook page and more, all of which allow you to share your observations in greater detail and learn from and appreciate the findings of others.

Birding is one of the most popular hobbies in the US – almost 47 million people observed, photographed or fed birds last year. You were probably one of them. If you are looking to add to that experience and battle the winter doldrums, join Feederwatch -- it’s a nice, easy way to give to and help out the scientific community and help our feathered friends in the process.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where birds eat over 400 pounds of sunflower seeds from his feeders every year. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at bobconfer@juno.com.



Catch up quick

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