Birding Projects For The Backyard

Bart sent me this photo of a red-headed woodpecker at his feeder. He took this last week with a WingScapes Camera. He lives in Alabama and these are common feeder birds. My mom reports that when she went to Brown County State Park in Indiana that they saw more red-headed woodpecker than ever before (they were scarce when I was growing up in Indiana). Living in Minnesota the last ten years I've learned that red-heads used to be quite common and are now tough to find and a species of special concern. Are they shifting their range south or is a much bigger problem going on? More observations are needed to know what's up.

Frequently, I get emails or talk to people who wish they could do more for birds, or wish that they could have a job that helps birds. One of the truly great things about birding is that ANYONE can do it. ANYONE can be an expert. Does it help to be an ornithologist and get your PhD? Sure, but it certainly is not a requirement. You can clock a lot of hours in the field and be considered an expert. One of my favorite examples is Arthur Cleveland Bent who wrote/compiled natural histories of birds in North American--which is still used to this day. When you're digging around on BNA or bird reference books, you will find quite a few references to Bent. Was this great observer an ornithologist? No, he was a business man but he compiled on of the earliest and most complete life histories for North American Birds.

Here are some projects that you can be a part of:

1. The Great Backyard Bird Count starts this weekend. Basically all you do is plan on counting birds for at least 15 minutes during the days of February 16 - 19, 2007. Count birds at as many places and on as many days as you like—just keep a separate list of counts for each day and/or location. Only count the greatest number of individuals. So, if you notice at dawn you only have one pair of cardinals and then later in the day when you are doing your official 15 minutes, you notice that you have 8 cardinals, you would count the eight. There's a chance the two you saw at dawn are part of the flock of 8. After you count, you enter the info here.

If you know someone who would love to do this but isn't online, you can get forms from your local wild bird specialty stores (good bird stores are aware of this event and generally have sheets on hand and some will even mail forms in--find out when you stop in to load up on seed).

2. Cornell's Project Feeder Watch is another citizen science project. This project is similar to the Great Backyard Bird Count, only it goes on all winter, not just for the weekend. Like the GBBC, you count the highest number of each species seen at a feeder. You count the birds that appear to your count site that you provided: sunflower seeds, suet, mealworms, birdbath, fruit bearing plants, etc. Sitings are reported to Cornell Lab of Ornithology via the website or snail mail.

3. Another really important tool for recording birds is eBird. Last night, Clay and I were talking about what a great resource this is turning out to be and how can we get more people to submit sightings (our own included). At this site you can use it to keep track of birds you see all over the country but also what birds you are seeing in your yard throughout the year. We can learn a great deal about bird distribution and migratory trends by everyone participating. The people who run it or very nice. There have been a couple of times when I reported an odd bird, and the people who check the observations were very kind when asking if I really meant to check off seeing a buff-bellied hummingbird in Texas (I didn't). I also found out that I have seen some rare birds for areas. When I was doing the ivory-bill search in Arkansas, I saw a small family group of trumpeter swans in the White River area--turned out to be a very unusual sighting, maybe more are on the way.

4. A newer one is PROJECT WILDBIRD sponsored by the Wild Bird Feeding Industry. I saw a presentation about this at Bird Watch America last January. WBFI wants to find a more standardized way to understand bird feeding preferences. Sure we can say that in general there are preferences for black oil sunflower, but this study hopes to learn of regional differences like maybe goldfinches further south in the US prefer sunflower hearts over Nyjer. They study also hopes to learn about bird feeder preferences. Generally cardinals do not feel comfortable feeding off of a tube feeder without a tray, they are larger and it's an awkward position for them, they almost always go to tray feeders.

Well, here's another photo from Bart's WingScapes Camera of a cardinal on the perch of a tube feeder. Is this because cardinals are smaller closer to the Equator so a cardinal like this one in Alabama has no problem with a perch on a tube feeder whereas cardinals in Minnesota are larger and need a tray? Is it nothing more than regional preference? That one of the things PROJECT WILDBIRD wants to find out.

You can participate in two different ways:

1. Watch birds at your feeder and monitor the activity at your feeders for a total of 3 hours spread across a single eight day segment. Each observation period is 30 minutes in length. These observations of the birds by species, the type of bird feeder used, and the feed offered to the birds and submit the total into the PROJECT WILDBIRD database using a simple computer data entry system.

2. This is a cool deal--you have to be good at identifying all the birds that visit your backyard. But you get a feeder set up to try out in your back yard. You get four different poles (with squirrel baffles) and four types of feeders on the poles. You change out the food and the feeders and monitor which birds are coming to which feeder. You can read more about the protocols and feeders you will use here. That looks like a pretty sweet deal to get all the feeders to use in your own yard.

PROJECT WILDBIRD is in dire need of participants at both levels. This started in 2005 and they had very few observers and it really skewed some of the info.

So, if you are looking for ways to help birds, try any one of these projects.