Here’s Your Chance to be a Citizen Scientist With Project Feederwatch

Northern Cardinal Photo:  Maryann Goldman
Northern Cardinal Male. Photo: Maryann Goldman

The tulip poplar leaves in my yard in central North Carolina are starting to yellow and glide to the ground. The nighttime temperatures are dropping enough to open the windows and let in some cool, fresh air. Local fields are filled with big, orange pumpkins and workers loading them up for the local produce stands. The signs of fall are all around us, and I am reminded that the Project Feederwatch program of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada is about to kick-off a new season.

Some of you may be familiar with the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) that occurs each February (the next one will be February 13-16, 2015). Citizen scientists like those in our family make bird observations over a four day period and then report their results to the GBBC database to create a yearly picture of how the bird population in the US and Canada is doing. Many families as well as clubs, classrooms, and organizations get together to document their bird sightings and share their enthusiasm for bird watching.

Pine Warbler Photo: Maryann Goldman
Pine Warbler. Photo: Maryann Goldman

If you enjoy participating in the GBBC, there’s also a weekly program called Project Feederwatch that you might enjoy. Project Feederwatch runs each year from the second Saturday in November for 21 weeks ending on a Friday in April. This year the first Saturday in November is the 8th. Essentially, it’s a winter bird watching program when birds tend to be very active at feeders.  You commit to count birds for a minimum of one hour each week over a consecutive two day period. You specify a dedicated count site which usually consists of the feeders outside a window in your own yard but could also be a feeder at your place of work. Think of a cozy spot, like the window at your kitchen table, where you can sit and enjoy a warm cup of tea as you watch the birds frolic in the snow at your feeder and write down your observations. I like to count on Sunday and Monday so that I have one weekend day and one weekday in my count period each week. Hopefully, I have time each week during that window of time to spend on my count. My kids help on Sunday, and on Monday I can spend some time by myself.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a bird expert to participate. When you set up your count site, one of the questions asks you your level of expertise. There’s nothing wrong with saying that you are a beginner if that’s the case. After 15 years of participation in Project Feederwatch, I feel pretty expert about identifying the birds that visit my feeders, but I still have to look up some of the birds. Project Feederwatch provides several resources for identifying birds including the All About Birds Website and the Merlin Bird ID App for your phone (iOS or Android).

You don’t need expensive feeders or bird seed to attract birds. I use blocks of C&S Hot Pepper Delight No-Melt Suet Dough as the main bird food at my feeder. Most birds seem to like it, and squirrels avoid it. For less than $2 a block, and each block lasts at least a week, I feel like I get a lot of birds for my buck. I also use Cole’s Hot Meats Seed which is much more expensive, but I only use about a 1/2 cup a day. Cardinals are attracted to it, and there is little waste or mess.

This is an activity with which you can include your entire family. My boys love looking out the window and hollering for me to come see the latest cool bird at the feeder. I’m proud to say that they can correctly ID the majority of North Carolina song birds and woodpeckers, and I owe that to their Project Feederwatch participation. They’ve also developed an appreciation for bird watching and our local environment while also learning about collecting and analyzing data for science.

Downy Woodpecter Male Photo: Maryann Goldman
Downy Woodpecker Male. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Project Feederwatch provides a tally sheet that you can use to write down your observations, or if you like, you can create your own. I like to use a spreadsheet approach that includes the names of the birds I might see at my feeder.

Sample Project Feederwatch Spreadsheet Photo: Maryann Goldman

It doesn’t cost much to participate in Project Feederwatch.  The program is non-profit, and they ask for a yearly $15 fee to help cover items such as printed materials, staff, data analysis, and the website.

If you enjoy photography, Project Feederwatch will inspire you to grab your camera and capture some fantastic bird shots!

Pine Warbler Photo: Maryann Goldman
Carolina Wren. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Project Feederwatch also provides graphs and spreadsheets for your data.  You can monitor your month-to-month and year-to-year totals, review birds species sighted, and show-off your results to your bird enthusiast friends.

Maryann’s 2013-2014 Project Feederwatch Data Spreadsheet

If you’re interested in participating in Project Feederwatch, it’s time to register for the 2014-2015 season.  Once you receive your materials, either online or in the mail, log in and set up your count site.  Review and learn the rules for counting birds and decide when you’re going to count as well as how you’ll record your observations.  I usually wait until the last week of the yearly count to submit all my weekly data, and each year I regret not doing it more often, so I recommend doing it weekly or at least monthly.  Most of all, enjoy the birds!