Glyndon, Minn. Black-capped chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches were busy nabbing sunflower seeds from feeders outside the Minnesota State University Moorhead Regional Science Center last Tuesday. The small, hyperactive birds would flit from...
Black-capped chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches were busy nabbing sunflower seeds from feeders outside the Minnesota State University Moorhead Regional Science Center last Tuesday.
The small, hyperactive birds would flit from feeder to feeder, or tree to feeder, or building to feeder, or building to tree, or tree to tree in a never-ending attack on the free all-you-can-eat buffet.
Inside the science center, separated from the cool November morning by large plate glass windows, volunteers kept a watchful eye on the activity outside. They were identifying species and keeping track of how many birds were visiting the feeders.
A board on the wall kept the tally. Chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches and downy woodpeckers had all visited and feasted this morning.
Welcome to a local chapter of Project FeederWatch, a winter-long survey of birds that visit backyard feeders in North America. Administered since 1987 by Cornell University and the National Audubon Society, the project has become the most comprehensive database on feeder bird populations in the world.
"It is really a citizen science project," said Joe Gardner, the science center's naturalist. "It gives ordinary people the chance to help scientists study birds and have fun while they are doing it."
The science center's FeederWatch program runs from Tuesday until April 2. Volunteers will monitor the feeders on 20 days for about two hours each day. The information they gather will be forwarded to Cornell's Lab of Ornithology. Located in Ithaca, N.Y., the college is considered a world leader in ornithological studies.
Cornell uses the project to, among other things, track changes in the distribution and abundance of feeder bird species; detect expansions or contractions in the winter ranges of feeder birds; and monitor the dynamic movements of nomadic species.
"It's a good way to collect a lot of data on birds from all over the country," Gardner said. "How else are you going collect so much information from so many different places?"
This is the second year of the science center's FeederWatch program. Gardner said he decided to start the program last fall while he was standing in the science center watching many different species of birds using the feeders.
"I thought to myself, 'It's really a shame there is not more people here to enjoy this,'" he said. "The good thing about it is that it is not an overwhelming task. You are not asking people to engage in physical labor. If you have two or three people counting at one time, you can count, socialize and relax and enjoy the site."
Last year's bird count included chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches, downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, blue jays, tree sparrows, pileated woodpeckers and redpolls.
The FeederWatch program is much more popular in the eastern United States, Gardner said. The Cornell web site ( www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw ) has a map marking each site that is enrolled in the project. Northwestern Minnesota has about one dozen sites marked. That is about the same number marked in the entire state of North Dakota.
Anybody who has bird feeders in their backyard may enroll in the project. You must agree to monitor the feeders on 20 days for a couple of hours per day, record the birds you see and give the data to Cornell.
Gardner's home in Hawley, Minn., for example, is a FeederWatch site.
"Winter is a good time of the year to do something like this because you have certain types of birds that remain in this area and that makes identifying them relatively easy," Gardner said. "It's not like spring or fall when you have all kinds of warblers migrating through and you need to be an expert birder to identify them. This is very much citizen science from the standpoint that it is not rigorous research."
By the looks of it, the chickadees and nuthatches outside the science center were doing all the work.
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