When I fill my feeders during a blizzard or when temperatures dip to 20 below, I’m always thrilled to see my chickadees already there, waiting for me. They zip in for still-room-temperature seeds and not-yet-frozen suet before I step away from the feeders.
It’s lovely knowing that my birds recognize me and appreciate my offerings. Bird feeding gives us pleasure on two counts — joy in seeing so many birds up close and personal, and gratification that we’re genuinely helping them.
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The first rule in feeding birds is to do no harm. Fortunately, many bird conservation organizations and BirdWatching provide a wealth of information about the best (and worst) food choices and the safest ways to offer food to backyard birds. If you want to do something even more helpful, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada have a fun and simple program that can bring your bird feeding to the next level.
Project FeederWatch began as the Ontario Bird Feeder Survey, which the Long Point Bird Observatory started in 1976. After a successful 10-year run with more than 500 participants, organizers realized that only a continental survey could accurately monitor the large-scale movements of birds, and they expanded the survey to cover all of North America via a partnership with the Cornell Lab.
In the winter of 1987-88, more than 4,000 people enrolled, representing most provinces in Canada and every state in the continental U.S. Since then the number of participants in this cooperative research project has grown to more than 20,000.
Decades of results
What have we learned from the wealth of FeederWatch data? The documentation of decreasing numbers of wintering Painted Buntings since the 1980s led the former Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission to start measures to protect this beautiful species. FeederWatch tracked range expansions of Eurasian Collared-Doves, Anna’s Hummingbirds, and Northern Cardinals, and the continent-wide decline of Evening Grosbeaks.
Notably, FeederWatchers were among the first to notice conjunctivitis in House Finches (“House Finch Eye Disease”). FeederWatch tracked the spread of the disease and gave participants information to reduce the chance of feeders spreading it. FeederWatch data has also been used to monitor effects on birds from West Nile virus.
Each year, the project starts on the second Saturday of November and runs for 21 weeks. The 2019–2020 FeederWatch season begins on Saturday, November 9, and continues until Friday, April 3. Participants should choose a portion of their yards that is easy to monitor, typically an area with a feeder that can be viewed from a single spot. If you take part, you’re asked to count the birds at your feeder on two consecutive days no more than once a week. New participants will be able to log in online and set up their count site on November 1.
Participants receive the FeederWatch Handbook, which offers tips on how to attract and identify common feeder birds, and Winter Bird Highlights, an annual summary of FeederWatch findings, paid for with a small participation fee.
For more information or to join, visit www.feederwatch.org.
This article from Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of BirdWatching. Subscribe
Post updated with 2019-2020 dates.