Enjoy the sight of chickadees while helping researchers understand their populations
Every winter, backyard bird feeders become an instrument of joy. But, many bird enthusiasts do not know that a bird feeder can also be a hub for science and conservation.
Prepare your study area
In wintertime, many species of birds move from areas of low food density to areas of greater food density. This shift in bird concentrations can be accentuated by the common North American practice of bird feeding. Setting up a winter sanctuary for birds to thrive in acts the same as preparing a lab table for an experiment. You will need infrastructure, key ingredients, time, and patience. This combination of elements allows for proper scientific monitoring to happen, and with an entire continent participating, allows for data collection to happen at a scale that would be impossible otherwise.
Birds are complex creatures, but their necessities are simple. Birds need food, water, and shelter for survival. These can vary by species, but a few simple steps can be taken to maximize your data collection area!
Stick ‘em up
Planting native trees and bushes are the best option for creating shelter for native birds. However, in lieu of being able to create wind and snow breaks from live plants, using downed branches, old Christmas trees (without any synthetic materials), and piles of leaves can create spaces for birds to seek shelter. Arrange the yard waste into random piles and place them under or near feeders. Birds can utilize these natural shelters to escape predators AND precipitation.
For cavity-nesting birds, birdhouses can still act as a haven against wintry conditions. To prepare your birdhouse, plug extra holes that are used for summertime ventilation, turn the front panel with the entrance hold upside down, and clean out the nesting material from the breeding season. These handy steps might tempt your local chickadees, nuthatches, bluebirds, and more to use the birdhouse for a warm place to lay their heads.
Turn up the heat
Water is everywhere, even in winter. But during the colder season, that water becomes far less accessible to backyard birdies. Still water freezes, moving water might be low or locked, and falling moisture comes down in the crystalline form called snow. This abundantly inaccessible water will often force birds to get water from driveways, gutters, and roads. The water can be tainted with chemicals or other detrimental additives or create a high risk of car strikes. Birders can combat these threats by hosting a heated water station.
Heated birdbaths are the easiest pathway to creating open water. Those with an existing favorite birdbath might choose to keep it open all winter long in simple fashion. For preexisting fixtures, adding a water pump or a water deicer will allow a standard birdbath to continue serving its purpose all twelve months of the year. Why a water pump? Regions with only the occasional dip into cooler temperatures do not need a full water heater, only some movement to their water. Plus, they are quite decorative!
Fill the tanks
Guess what? Empty feeders do not fill up empty birds! During winter, keeping bird feeders full keeps hungry birds full. A collection of bird feeders can pop and light up the snow, but if the trays and ports are empty, trees and bushes will also remain empty. What feeder ingredients build the best birding dish? It depends. Generally, sunflower seed, suet, nuts, fruits, and millet can attract the widest variety of birds. Birds Choice helps by combining many of these ingredients, taking away the hard work!
Filling the bird feeding tanks with sunflower seeds will lure the largest diversity of birds, making for an optimal viewing AND counting experience. Suet can draw those more stubborn birds like nuthatches and woodpeckers. Millet lures small-billed sparrows like juncos. Nuts and fruits draw out the larger, noisy birds such as jays and thrushes! Using a combination of any of these ingredients can help a backyard citizen science experience be maximized!
With this sound base knowledge of how to create the premium counting habitat, citizen scientists are ready for the next step(s). Counting birds.
How to collect and contribute birdwatching data at your feeders
When first researching the projects and programs built to count backyard birds, future citizen scientists might be overwhelmed. The lists of birding projects and surveys are countless, and conservation groups are continuously adding to this list. Here, this expansive list has been narrowed down by some favorites of birders, conservationists, and the author of this post for the best three wintertime conservation projects that backyard birders can participate in.
Project FeederWatch is a multi-month count operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The flexible schedule and birding location allows counters to participate when and where they would like. This flexibility is helpful for those with a particularly busy schedule. What does the project help accomplish? According to Cornell:
“FeederWatch is a November-April survey of birds that visit backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other locales in North America. You don’t even need a feeder! All you need is an area with plantings, habitat, water, or food that attracts birds. The schedule is completely flexible. Count your birds for as long as you like on days of your choosing, then enter your counts online. Your counts allow you to track what is happening to birds around your home and to contribute to a continental data-set of bird distribution and abundance.”
This winter-time data helps continue to build the robust database used by countless researchers. Join Project FeederWatch here!
Christmas Bird Count
One of the largest and oldest conservation groups in the world has conducted this citizen science event for over 120 years! And while there are more restrictions on when and where birders can contribute data to the project, it is still quite easy to join, participate, and have a lot of fun! The history of this project is novel. According to the National Audubon Society:
“Frank Chapman and 26 other conservationists initiated the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) as a way of promoting conservation by counting, rather than hunting, birds on Christmas Day of 1900. Some counts have been running every year since then and the CBC now happens in over 20 countries in the western hemisphere! The data collected by observers over the past century allow Audubon researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent's bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years.”
The longterm data from this massive effort will be critical to protecting our favorite birds, and ANYONE can help continue this helpful pasttime. Learn how to join a Christmas Bird Count near you at Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count site!
(Oh, and for those worried about what to bring on a Christmas Bird Count, here is a fun "Dos and Don'ts" list.)
Great Backyard Bird Count
This four day event does not have to be restricted to the counter’s backyard. However, a global journey is not required either, even though this count is conducted across all hemispheres! Where does this project excel? According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:
“Launched in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) was the first online citizen-science project (also referred to as community science) to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real time. Birds Canada joined the project in 2009 to provide an expanded capacity to support participation in Canada. In 2013, we became a global project when we began entering data into eBird, the world’s largest biodiversity-related citizen science (community science) project. Each February, for four days, the world comes together for the love of birds. Over these four days we invite people to spend time in their favorite places watching and counting as many birds as they can find and reporting them to us. These observations help scientists better understand global bird populations before one of their annual migrations.”
While participating in all four days is not essential, becoming addicted to this event is easier than one might imagine. This author struggles to be very productive during these four days each year. Join, count, contribute. Use this site to learn more about joining the Great Backyard Bird Count!
Get up, get out, and get counting!
A collection of feeders is not only the perfect entry into the world of enjoying birds, they create opportunities to become scientists and conservationists in backyards, nature centers, and parks! Combining the ingredients of shelter, water, and birdseed with the remarkable citizen projects coordinated by the world’s top bird groups, creates the perfect winter storm of birds, fun, and philanthropic effort. Need to get better at bird identification, first? Use this helpful guide!
Get up, get out, get counting, and give back to the birds that provide so much to humankind.