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It's for the birds.

Bird watching is the fastest-growing outdoor activity in North America. And backyard bird feeding is a great way for bird watchers to enjoy seeing birds up-close. If you feed the birds in your yard each winter, you can turn your hobby into research for bird conservation through Project FeederWatch.

Bird populations provide one of the best indicators of environmental health. They are dynamic and change rapidly from place to place and from year to year. Citizen science projects like Project FeederWatch provide data so that bird research and conservation organizations can monitor such long-term changes as species decline and shifts in wintering ranges, track the seasonal movements of irruptive species and chart the spread of illnesses in bird populations.

In 2005/06 Canada experienced its warmest winter since modern record-keeping began, with average temperatures 3.9 degrees Celsius above normal. As a result, more northern birdwatchers than ever before were treated to sightings of southern birds like the Red-bellied Woodpecker and the Northern Cardinal.

Kerrie Wilcox, who is the Canadian coordinator of Project FeederWatch, says that the percentage of feeders visited by Red-bellied Woodpeckers in Ontario reached an all-time high last winter, occurring at nearly 15 percent of feeders. That's because the Red-bellied Woodpecker's range has been creeping northward from its core in the mid-Atlantic and southeastern states over the last decade; it rarely visited more than five percent of sites just five years ago.

In the same way, Northern Cardinals were reported at a whopping 72 percent of feeders in Ontario this past winter. This southern species was almost unheard of in the province a hundred years ago.

Range expansions in southern species such as these could be a signal that changes in climate are making northern regions more hospitable. Likewise, it would be expected that birds located at the southern edge of their range would retract with warmer climatic conditions.

The fate of the Evening Grosbeak is one bird that scientists are trying to understand. Many people who used to see these raucous birds descend on their feeders in large numbers now report that they haven't spotted one in years. Reports from bird-monitoring volunteers who count the birds at their feeders as part of Project FeederWatch, show that Evening Grosbeaks are, indeed, declining. In fact, Evening Grosbeaks are now completely missing from many areas where they were common as recently as the early 1990s.

Project FeederWatch had its roots in Canada in the mid-1970s. Through the Long Point Bird Observatory on Lake Erie, Ontario, Dr. Erica Dunn established the Ontario Feeder Bird survey in 1976. After a successful 10-year run with more than 500 participants, its organizers realized that only a continental survey could accurately monitor the large-scale movements of birds. Therefore, Long Point Bird Observatory decided to expand the survey to cover all of North America.

Realizing they would need a strong partner in this venture, Long Point approached the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and in 1987 Project FeederWatch was launched across North America. It has developed into a cooperative research project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada (formerly the Long Point Bird Observatory) with support from the National Audubon Society and Nature Canada. Each winter, more than 15,000 people participate.

And participation is easy. You watch birds at your feeder at regular intervals from November through March, counting the kinds and numbers of birds that visit. Then you record the information on FeederWatch data forms or by using interactive web pages. When you enroll in the program (for a fee of $15 for the U.S. program or $35 in Canada,) you also receive a number of educational materials, including a full-sized, color poster of common feeder birds; a bird calendar; a comprehensive instruction book; a useful handbook, and a magazine/newsletter, covering the latest FeederWatch results, articles on bird behavior, answers to your bird questions and more.

Four Days of Counting

What mid-winter activity is fun, easy, free and helps bird conservation? What can parents and teachers do with children that connects them to a whole new world of natural wonders? This February, the tenth annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, will give everyone a chance to discover the birds in their neighborhood and "Count for the Record."

"Before the count, I never bothered to tell one sparrow from the next," said Lori Bailey, a GBBC participant from La Crosse, Wisconsin. "But I took a picture of something taking shelter in a tree, enlarged it in Photoshop and was actually able to tell what kind of sparrow it was. It was kind of fun playing detective. In short, the bird count had adventure, mystery and the unexpected."

During February 16 through 19, 2007, people of all ages, from beginners to experts, are invited to join this event which spans all of the United States and Canada. Participants can take part wherever they are--at home, in schoolyards, at local parks or wildlife refuges. Observers simply count the highest number of each species they see during an outing or a sitting, and enter their tally on the Great Backyard Bird Count web site. Visitors to the web site can also compare their sightings with results from other participants, as checklists pour in from across the U.S. and Canada.

"The Great Backyard Bird Count is a community celebration of birds, birding and nature," says Janis Dickinson, director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "We often fail to notice how rich our surroundings are, but counting birds, even for just 15 minutes, is not only educational, it can provide a lasting source of enjoyment, turning a daily walk into a treasure hunt."

Last year, participants submitted more than 60,000 checklists--and reported 7.5 million birds overall and 623 different species.

Learn More

Project FeederWatch--Canada

Bird Studies Canada

P.O. Box 160, Port Rowan, ON N0E 1M0

toll-free (888) 448- 2473.

Project FeederWatch--USA

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

159 Sapsucker Woods Rd., Ithaca, NY 14850

toll-free (800) 843-2473 (BIRD)

The Great Backyard Bird Count
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Title Annotation:Project FeederWatch; Long Point Bird Observatory
Publication:Natural Life
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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