Happy Birthday Project FeederWatch

It’s mid-November and once again I‘m engaged in Project FeederWatch, keeping a record of the number and species of birds visiting my back porch feeder area. As a veteran of this citizen science project started by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, both they and I are celebrating our 30th year engaged in this unique program.

A male northern cardinal (Photo by Torindkfit in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A male northern cardinal (Photo by Torindkfit in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

The rewards have been enormous. Not only have I seen as many as 22 bird species at the feeders during the cold, snowy winter of 2014-15, but I have also observed interactions between small mammals and birds fighting for seeds on the ground. Although last winter, which was unusually warm, was not an exciting year for my feeder-watching, other wildlife observations while feeder watching added to my enjoyment.

This morning, for instance, shortly after 7:00, while glancing out at the feeder birds on the two tube feeders hanging from our back porch, I spot an eight-point buck walking to the edge of the woods and making or, more likely, freshening a scrape, pulling down a branch repeatedly with his mouth to leave his scent and then pawing the ground beneath.

Three does foraging at the edge of the woods (Photo by Dave Bonta)

Three does foraging at the edge of the woods (Photo by Dave Bonta)

Only a few yards from the buck, I see one, two, and finally three does foraging at the border between the woods and the flat area. I think I might see chasing and breeding, but he seems to sense that they are not yet in estrus.

When eight mourning doves feeding on the ground below the back porch steps suddenly take fright and fly, probably because they can see me standing at the kitchen door window staring out at the deer, the buck flees too. The does, though, continue eating placidly with no visible reaction to the buck’s retreat.

An American tree sparrow

An American tree sparrow (Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Week after week last winter I entered the same bird numbers and species, sometimes seeing as few as 11 species during my weekly, two-day count. But field work often consists of persistence with now and then a breakthrough. Mine came last February 16, when I recorded 18 American tree sparrows on the feeders and ground below, followed on March 3 by 21 tree sparrows. In previous winters my number of these sparrows hovered in the low single digits, and I couldn’t account for so many of these birds.

When the annual Project FeederWatch (PFW) report for the top 25 bird species from 6,498 sites in the northeast was issued, the American tree sparrow was 24th on the list, reported at 36% of sites, and the average flock size was three! All my other feeder birds—black-capped chickadee, dark-eyed junco, mourning dove, blue jay, northern cardinal, American goldfinch, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatch, tufted titmouse, song and white-throated sparrows and Carolina wren were much higher on the list.

A dark-eyed junco

A dark-eyed junco (Photo by CheepShot in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Chickadee was first at 97% of sites, but that included both Carolina and black-capped chickadees, so dark-eyed junco, second on the list at 94% of sites, continued to be the most common feeder species. The flock size for juncos averaged four, but I’ve counted between 60 and 80 most years.

When I report those numbers, they are flagged during my online reporting as a result of a “smart filter” system the Cornell Lab has developed to root out mistaken observations. Species not usually seen in the area or high counts of a species are questioned. An error message pops up, and I am asked to confirm my number. Then when I do, my report is forwarded for review by PFW staff and regional biologists. Had I reported a rare bird, they would have required more validation, including a description of the site and bird and a photograph, if possible.

Because PFW data is being used by more and more researchers, they had to develop a reporting system that would increase both researchers’ and participants’ confidence in the resulting data. They tested their new “smart filter” system during the three winter seasons of November 2007-April 2010, flagging 50,104 PFW submissions out of a total of 3,924,088 or 1.3%, and reviewers approved 97.7% because a rare species had been confirmed in that region or, in my case, because large flocks of a species occasionally occur here. As researchers concluded in a paper about validating PFW reports, “Our methods ensure that unexpected reports are subjected to expert scrutiny, resulting in a more accurate and reliable data set regardless of the user.”

A pine siskin

A pine siskin (Photo by Hvbirder in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

In contrast to last winter’s mild temperatures, the winter of 2014-15, which began late, was the coldest in decades. It was also a pine siskin invasion year. As they poured south from their boreal home grounds, we saw our first ones on November 9, 2014 when three dozen visited our feeder area. They must have headed farther south because our next siskin visitation happened on January 6, 2015. After that, it was every bird for itself and the mammals also, since pine siskins may be small, but they are feisty.

For example, on February 2, a cold, windy day, a sea of birds covered the ground when I threw out more birdseed in mid-afternoon. The siskins fought off all comers. Two on the large tube feeder fought with house finches and won. They scared off chickadees, tufted titmice, and each other as well as American goldfinches. The blizzard of birds, including siskins, continued through February and into a freezing March, with the siskins paying their last visit on March 30.

A black-capped chickadee

A black-capped chickadee (Photo by fishhawk on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

According to a paper about boreal bird irruption, pine siskin irruptions may happen every other year but also may occur in consecutive years or at longer intervals. Using more than two million PFW pine siskin observations from 1989-2012, researchers studied the patterns of pine siskin irruptions from their Canadian boreal homes where they eat conifer seeds to the high elevation Adirondack and Appalachian Mountains.

They concluded that a wet spring in the boreal region leads to a small seed crop, but a dry spring in the Appalachian region leads to a large seed crop. If the winter air temperature is also unusually cold in the boreal region, which even stresses these cold-adapted birds, they will irrupt south where the seed crop is plentiful. “This study,” they write, “is the first…to reveal how climate variability drives irruptions of North America boreal seed-eating birds.”

Tufted titmouse

Tufted titmouse (Photo by Cindy Sue Causey on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Using PFW data to track changes in winter bird communities has been useful in studying climate change in our backyards according to Karine Prince and Benjamin Zuckerberg. They maintain that since the 1970s, North America’s climate has been changing especially during the winter season with less and shorter snow cover and more variable and heavy precipitation.

Choosing 38 bird species that winter in eastern North America, they tested the influence of changes in winter minimum temperatures over 22 years and found that the winter bird communities became increasingly dominated by warm-adapted species such as mourning doves, Carolina wrens, red-bellied woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds and dark-eyed juncos, which moved northward about 4.2 miles a year.

Pine warbler

Pine warbler (Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Last winter PFW also received several reports of pine warblers as far north as Nova Scotia and growing numbers of hermit thrushes at northeastern feeders visiting two to four percent of sites.

The latest addition to PFW studies is a plea for us to report bird interactions at feeders. They began this project late last season and received 1,994 observations from 200 feeder watchers. Most were of one bird displacing another, 37 of one bird catching and eating another, and 23 of one bird mobbing another. Usually larger birds displaced smaller ones but sometimes smaller birds turned the tables with house finches displacing cardinals and downy woodpeckers displacing mourning doves.

A house finch

A house finch (Photo by Lee Coursey on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I see many interactions a year, especially the winter of 2014-15. Some are harmonious such as the early January morning when a cottontail rabbit, a gray squirrel and juncos, white-throats, a tree sparrow, two song sparrows and a cardinal pair fed together on the porch and steps. Later they were joined by house finches, and goldfinches. Chickadees, titmice, and white-breasted nuthatches appeared and competed with goldfinches and house finches on the hanging feeders. Mourning doves flew in and out, as many as ten at a time, and a red-bellied woodpecker made several hurried appearances.

But our peaceable kingdom dissolved during a snowstorm two weeks later when four squirrels, the rabbit and 13 mourning doves pushed the small birds from the covered porch floor where I had spread birdseed. Then the birds that only eat from the feeders arrived—nine goldfinches, a couple chickadees and three house finches but goldfinches even displaced the house finches. A pair of cardinals sidled in and scared off as did a female red-bellied woodpecker.

Thus, instead of merely counting and recording my feeder birds I can contribute my observations of such interactions to PFW and help them learn more about what drives the interactions of feeder birds.

Happy 30th birthday Project FeederWatch, and may we celebrate many more birthdays together! A two-minute YouTube video provides an effective introduction to Project Feederwatch.

Putting Up the Feeders

cardinal pair in a snowstorm

cardinal pair below the feeders in a snowstorm

The day after I cleared the trails of branches brought down by Hurricane Sandy, I hung my birdfeeders up for the first time since the previous April. Because bears live on our mountain, I never tempt them with birdseed, having learned years ago that they will go to great lengths to make a meal of them and, in the process, tear feeders apart.

Even so, I bring them in every night until mid-December and again in March and early April.

I only put the feeders out as early as November because I am a veteran Project FeederWatch participant, having signed on for this citizen science project, developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the first year it was offered. Last fall was its and my 26th season, and it began on November 10.

Anyone can join this continent-wide effort by paying a small fee and either sending in paper copies of their count or doing it online at the Lab’s website. If the former, feeder watchers count birds at and near their feeders two consecutive days every two weeks. If the latter, as I do, I can count birds two consecutive days every week. Since I have a reasonably small and simple set-up, mostly I glance out my back kitchen door window and keep a tally card nearby.

The idea is to count the maximum number of each species that I see at one time during my count days. Folks with larger and more elaborate feeding areas containing numerous feeders, sources of water and plantings can report all the species attracted to their much larger count site.

In addition to reporting the birds I see, the report asks for when and how long I counted, the depth of snow and/or ice, the kind and length of time of any precipitation, and the low and high temperatures of the days. Once a season I also fill out a detailed description of my count site including the habitat within a half mile, elevation, the kinds of food I supply for the birds, and the plantings and water sources within 100 feet of my feeders.

Usually I give the birds a week before the start of the season to re-discover the large and small tube feeders that hang from our back porch. Last November third it was cold, overcast, and windy, and as soon as my feeders went up and I spread more birdseed below the back steps, the dark-eyed juncos, back from the north, flew in. They were quickly followed by full-time residents—white-breasted nuthatches, tufted titmice, and a red-bellied woodpecker. Next, song sparrows and American goldfinches, a few of which are full-time residents, appeared and so did the first white-throated sparrow of the season, also down from the north.

pine siskin and house finch

pine siskin and house finch

The seventh species to appear was a house finch. Here on our mountain they continue to be late fall and early winter visitors and are often gone by February. Project FeederWatch asks that participants note the presence or absence of eye disease in this species and in goldfinches. I’ve never seen this bacterial infection in the latter but sometimes in the former and I wonder if that is why their numbers peak and crash so soon. Years ago, when this western species, accidentally introduced to the East back in 1940, finally arrived on our mountain, they even nested here. But then their numbers crashed when they developed eye disease, and they never nested here again.

The house finch was followed by a black-capped chickadee and a male and female northern cardinal—two more permanent residents.

And then—glory be—25 pine siskins. Could this boreal bird species be the vanguard of an influx of rare northern birds? Every November a few pine siskins and common redpolls are reported by feeder watchers in Pennsylvania and hopes are raised that this will be the winter for a huge irruption of seed-eating birds from Canada. Reports of a widespread failure in seed-crop production, especially of spruces and birches, had already reached bird listservs so I was delighted to welcome the pine siskins.

The eleventh species of the day was one of our Carolina wrens, now successfully wintering as our climate warms and raising families here in the spring and summer.

A migrating swamp sparrow was the twelfth and last species that day. Never before had so many species appeared the first day I put out the feeders.

swamp sparrow

swamp sparrow below the feeders

The following day a fox sparrow appeared. This lovely, large sparrow always visits us on it way north in the summer and south in the winter. Because of its size—seven inches—it could easily dominate the smaller birds as it scratches towhee-like at the seeds below the back steps, but usually this rusty-tailed sparrow is off by itself, completely ignoring the juncos, song sparrows, and other ground-feeding birds.

Number 14 the next day was the gorgeous male purple finch, his head, breast and rump a rosy-red more brilliant and wide-spread than his close relative the house finch. But unlike the house finch, the purple finch belongs in eastern North America.

The female purple finch, like the house finch, is a study in brown and white, but she is chunkier and has a face patched with dark brown and a white stripe behind her eye.

“Don’t you see,” I frequently say to my husband, Bruce, when I try to point out the difference between the two species. But he doesn’t see what seems so obvious to me.

Then number 15, the American tree sparrow, another northern-breeding species, appears, and Bruce throws up his hands, muttering something about lbjs, better known as “little brown jobs” among birders in the know who can distinguish the many similar-appearing sparrow species and other difficult to identify birds such as the often different colored females. Unlike the seed-eating boreal species, tree sparrows are regulars at my feeders every winter. With its rusty-red head and black dot on its white breast it’s an easy sparrow for me to identify.

common redpoll

common redpoll at the feeder, January 2008

Numbers continued to increase day by day and the sixteenth species, on November sixth, was a sharp-shinned hawk. On that day it didn’t catch a meal because all the birds heeded the chickadee’s warning call and fled.

On the seventh a blue jay and a mourning dove joined the feeder birds while the male purple finch continued to hang around. Already, I was anticipating an excellent FeederWatch count.

But the weather warmed up, and it was a true Indian summer day. The second day was too. As a consequence, both the numbers and species were low—two white-breasted nuthatches, five American goldfinches, three tufted titmice, two black-capped chickadees, 12 house finches (one with eye disease), two red-bellied woodpeckers, three dark-eyed juncos, one song sparrow, one cardinal, and one purple finch. At least I had gotten a purple finch, but on the eleventh it was a male and the twelfth a female, yet, according to the rules, I could only count one purple finch. The same was true for the northern cardinals.

The thinking is that since the male and female of most feeder bird species look similar and are counted as a group, those that are sexually dimorphic, such as the cardinals and purple finches, must be treated the same way. Hence, even though I knew that two cardinals and two purple finches came to my feeders, I could only report one unless both sexes appeared together which, in this case, they did not.

sharp-shinned hawk at feeder

Sharp-shinned hawk at the feeder

The weather continued mild throughout the month and into mid-December, much to my disgust as a feeder watcher and the disgust of our deer hunters. I never did see another pine siskin, and my feeder counts remained low except for the juncos that increased to 20 by the end of the month. The sharpie also returned on that last November count, but once again it didn’t score.

The sharpie waited until the day before Christmas. Our Newfoundland daughter-in-law Pam called us to the bow window and pointed out the sharpie eating a female cardinal on the ground below. She took some photos of it in action that even showcased its orange eyes outlined in black.

Having gotten a meal, it was back the last day of December sitting on an ash tree branch close to the bow window in mid-afternoon for over half an hour. It wasn’t even disturbed by Bruce attaching his camera to the front of our spotting scope and taking frame-filling photos with his “digiscope” on the second day of a FeederWatch.

Such are the rewards of keeping a close watch on the birds that visit our feeders throughout the winter months. In addition, the records we send into Project FeederWatch, along with feeder watchers all over the continent, enable ornithologists to better understand the distribution of wintering birds and to track emerging diseases, such as the eye disease, and other problems birds may face.


All photos taken at Marcia’s birdfeeders. The first four are by Dave; the last is by Bruce, taken through his “digiscope” set-up.