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Two bird counts offer ways to monitor health and trends of feathered friends; Sit back, relax and keep track of feeder activity.

Byline: George Barnes

It may be the most relaxing citizen science imaginable - sit at your dining room table, sip coffee and count the birds visiting your feeder.

The National Audubon Society will be holding its annual Great Backyard Bird Count this weekend, beginning today and continuing through Monday. The count follows by one week the Massachusetts Audubon Society's similar Focus on Feeders.

The two counts aim to establish annual records over time of birds in certain areas that could eventually lead to a better understanding of bird population trends.

Ellen Sousa of Turkey Hill Brook Farm in Spencer said she has taken part in the Great Backyard Bird Count the past few years and she encourages others to do it.

"It's easy to do," she said, explaining that all people need to do is observe and count the number of birds at their feeders and in their backyards and report them to birdsource.org/gbbc/, Web pages managed by the National Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada.

To enter, all that is necessary is to go to the page, click on "Submit your bird checklist" at the top of the page and follow instructions. On the form for reporting the observations, those counting are asked to supply information on where the observations were made, the date and details of the observation, including weather conditions, number of observers at the place and times the count was made. Also sought on the report form are the type of location and habitat. The observers then are asked to enter the species named and the highest number observed at that time.

At her feeder, Ms. Sousa said, she mostly sees chickadees, downy and hairy woodpeckers, northern cardinals, nuthatches, tufted titmice and juncos, and an occasional sparrow. She said one year she recorded a ruby-crowned kinglet. On the farm, she also sees turkeys and many other bird species.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is not limited to Massachusetts.

"It's the whole country and anyone can participate," Ms. Sousa said.

Ms. Sousa said she got involved several years ago after reading about it on the Internet. She is a garden coach with a focus on creating nature-friendly habitat. She promotes the bird count on her blog at blog.thbfarm.com.

The Massachusetts Audubon Society's own bird count, Focus on Feeders, was held last weekend and results will continue to be gathered through the reporting deadline of Feb. 28. As in the Great Backyard Bird Count, participants may enter observations at massaudubon.org.

Taber Allison, of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, said Focus on Feeders has been held annually for 40 years. It was started to collect data on the state's northern cardinal, tufted titmouse and northern mockingbird populations. He said that in the 1980s it was expanded to include all feeder birds. The count also includes many other species, including wild turkeys and birds of prey that are seen in backyards during the weekend, but the focus is mainly on common wintering birds such as chickadees, titmice, juncos, finches and cardinals.

"They are the primary feeders," he said. "They are the ones we have the most consistent and reliable information on."

Mr. Allison said the results of the count are entered into a database to assist in the study of wintering birds, which could, over time, offer insights into the effects of climate change, habitat loss and other factors on birds.

The bird surveys follow the National Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count, which is held in December. Mr. Allison said the Christmas count often includes fall and sometimes summer birds lingering in the state before migrating. The February counts are more likely to record only wintering-over birds.

Mr. Allison said the counts can vary significantly from year to year with some species, depending on what is happening in their normal winter territories.

"Last year there were a lot of pine siskins in the state," he said. "We had thousands."

The total counted in the two-day count in 2009 was 5,212.

"It was the most commonly sighted bird at the feeders," he said. "This year only 30 have been reported so far. It is like feast or famine."

It is likely food was less available in the pine siskin's normal wintering grounds in 2009.

The National and Massachusetts Audubon Societies are separate organizations, but with the same focus of nature preservation and education. Both collect bird data for birdsource.org.

ART: PHOTOS; CHART

CUTLINE: (1) Robins roost in shrubbery in a yard in Worcester in December. (2) A titmouse sits perched in forsythia in a Worcester backyard in December. (CHART) Top Ten Lists for 2009

PHOTOG: (CHART) T&G Staff/STACEY ARSENAULT
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Feb 12, 2010
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