Spotting birds in your backyard can unlock population trends with Project FeederWatch

·4 min read

Any bird that spends the winter in Norfolk County likely knows the address of Diane Salter.

The Walsingham resident has 10 bird feeders set up in her backyard — all the better, she says, to take part in Project FeederWatch, a citizen science initiative that sees birders across North America jot down the birds that visit their properties over the winter and submit their observations to Birds Canada, a conservation organization headquartered near Port Rowan.

“You fill your feeders, and usually in the morning you look out to see if there’s any action,” said Salter, who counts her avian visitors twice weekly from mid-November to late April.

“You’re always looking for something different. You’ve got the regulars, and once in a while you get a surprise — something you haven’t seen for a couple of years.”

Taken together, reports from 25,000 sharp-eyed volunteers like Salter paint a continentwide picture of bird population and migration trends.

“Everybody’s providing a little snapshot of what’s going on in their backyard, and so across the country we’re getting this huge snapshot of how birds are doing,” said Kerrie Wilcox of Birds Canada.

“Because FeederWatch has 35 years of data, we have these fantastic long-term trends. So we can identify which species are doing well and which ones need our help.”

The data reveals most bird species are in trouble.

“We’ve lost three billion birds since the 1970s, so we need to stop this trend,” Wilcox said, referring to a 2019 study led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that found North American wild bird populations were down nearly 30 per cent from where they were 50 years prior.

The steep decline in numbers and migratory range is seen across hundreds of species — including common birds like sparrows, blackbirds and blue jays — and in every ecosystem, from forests to grasslands.

That can signal serious problems with the environment, such as habitat loss due to climate change and development, and prompt further research into what needs to be done to protect wildlife.

“Birds are indicators of environmental health and the effectiveness of conservation efforts,” Wilcox said.

There are good news stories, too, such as the resurgence of hawks after the pesticide DDT was banned in the 1970s.

“FeederWatch data shows this fantastic upward population trend in Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks,” Wilcox said.

This year, Project FeederWatch runs Nov. 13 to April 30.

“People could count every week or they could just count once in the season,” Wilcox said. “People don’t even need a feeder to participate.”

Or a backyard, for that matter.

“People can participate from their balconies,” Wilcox said, adding that the recruitment of birders in cities like Hamilton is crucial to the project.

Salter said she is proud to have taken part in bird counts for more than 30 years.

“It makes you happy. You feel like you’re contributing to their well-being,” said the veteran birder, who plants fruit trees and berry bushes on her rural property to give her feathered friends something to snack on.

“They make the garden complete,” she said. “When it’s really crummy weather, say a big snowstorm, and you look out and you’ve got 20 birds out there, you think, ‘Wow, I’m keeping them alive.’”

Inspiring a love of birds and nature is an important benefit of Project FeederWatch that goes beyond the data.

“Without that connection, there’s not that drive to protect them,” said Wilcox, who welcomes people to send her cellphone photos of the birds they see in their yard.

“We can tell a lot from the shape of the bird to help them ID it,” she said.

She said newcomers to birding will quickly learn to see the natural world with new eyes.

“I get feedback from people all the time about how much fun they have participating and how much they’ve learned,” Wilcox said.

“They didn’t know there was so much action in their backyard.”

How to take part in Project FeederWatch

Sign up at birdscanada.org/feederwatch or call 1-888-448-2473.

Count your backyard birds as many times as you choose throughout the season (Nov. 13 to April 30).

Submit your counts online at feederwatch.org or through the Project FeederWatch mobile app.

What to watch for

Commonly sighted feeder birds include black-capped chickadees, American goldfinches, house finches, dark-eyed juncos, downy woodpeckers, mourning doves, house sparrows, blue jays and cardinals.

But also keep an eye out for boundary-pushing birds like the tufted titmouse — “They are just the cutest,” Wilcox says — and the red-bellied woodpecker, which is expanding its range south.

“That’s a really exciting one to have show up at your feeder, and it’s helping us document their range expansion as well,” Wilcox said.

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator

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