November 27, 2008
In the Garden
Fly Up and Be Counted!
By ANNE RAVER
THIS winter, while it is too cold to garden, I will be counting birds for Project FeederWatch, a survey run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in Ithaca, N.Y., and Bird Studies Canada, a nonprofit research group in Ontario. I am one of about 15,000 volunteers across the continent who will be keeping a record of the birds that show up at their backyard feeders from November to early April.
The collaboration between the two groups began about 20 years ago, when Erica Dunn, an ornithologist who started the Ontario Bird Feeder Survey in 1976, realized that a larger survey would be better able to track population and migration trends. She approached the Cornell Lab about starting a similar study in the United States, and their joint effort, called Project FeederWatch, enrolled 4,000 volunteers in 1987, its first year.
Over the years, volunteers have documented declines in various bird populations, as well as the invasion of exotic species and the devastating effect of West Nile virus on the American crow.
This is citizen science at its best.
“It’s like voting,” said Paul Schwarz, 69, a retired teacher in Scarsdale, N.Y., who became involved three years ago. “We just participated in something huge: we pulled the levers to make our one vote count,” he said, referring to the recent presidential election. In the same way, he said, he is happy to count finches, “to provide data for something larger that might be useful.”
Of course, counting finches is not as exciting as spotting a streak-backed oriole, as Connie Kogler, 48, did last December.
Mrs. Kogler and her husband, Al, who live in Loveland, Colo., have been Project FeederWatch participants for five years. So when Mr. Kogler, 51, saw the bird through their kitchen window and said, “Honey, there’s a funny-looking oriole out here,” Mrs. Kogler, who was late for work, didn’t think much of it. She snapped a few pictures and drove off to Wild Bird Unlimited, the store in Fort Collins where she is an education coordinator.
But when she sent the images of what she thought was a common Bullock’s oriole to a few friends on Cobirds, an e-mail list for Colorado birders, she received an immediate response suggesting that it might be a streak-backed oriole, never before seen in Colorado. Then a couple of “die-hard birders” on the list decided to see for themselves, Mrs. Kogler said, and “the next day, we had 80 people come through our kitchen.” (The Koglers, who have 11 children between them, love people.)
The streak-backed oriole, whose normal habitat is 100 miles south of the Mexican border, was recorded as a first-time visitor by the Colorado Field Ornithologists, a group that maintains the rare-bird records for the State of Colorado. And during the bird’s visit, which lasted nearly a month, more than 400 people passed through the Koglers’ kitchen, from as far away as Nebraska, Anchorage and Winnipeg.
Pedro, as the Koglers first called the oriole — and then Pedro-Maria, once they realized it was female — stayed through the end of the year, stocking up on mealworms. On Jan. 1, the Koglers watched Pedro-Maria eat 103 of them. The next day, she took off.
This oriole could be at the end of its journey, said David Bonter, the ornithologist who leads Project FeederWatch in the United States. “Chances are, there’s something wrong with its orientation mechanism, so its chances of finding its way back home and finding a mate aren’t good.”
On the other hand, he added, a bird like that “could be the seed that starts a new population.”
So good luck, Pedro-Maria.
Project FeederWatch carries on the tradition of surveys like the North American Breeding Bird Survey, set up in 1966 by the United States Geological Survey and the Canadian Wildlife Service, and the Christmas Bird Count, run by the National Audubon Society since 1900.
The participants in these programs are constantly adding to what we know about birds like the northern cardinal, the tufted titmouse, the Carolina wren and the red-bellied woodpecker, which are moving farther north, Mr. Bonter said.
“Back in the 1950s, the northern cardinal was rarely seen in New York,” he said. “But because winters are not as severe, it’s moved hundreds of miles. We now find it in northern Quebec.”
Volunteers have documented the decline of the evening grosbeak, once one of the most common species in the northern half of North America. In the last 15 years, Mr. Bonter said, its flocks have seen “more than a 50 percent decline.”
Project FeederWatch volunteers have also recorded the appearance of a new species, the Eurasian collared dove, which is “like a mourning dove on steroids,” Mr. Bonter said. The bird came to the Americas through the pet trade in the early 1970s and escaped into the wild, he said; it has been observed in 39 states and British Columbia.
Scientists have no real explanation why the evening grosbeak is disappearing, and they can’t predict whether the collared dove will start to compete with native doves. But the more data they have, the closer they can come to drawing conclusions.
In the meantime, watching birds, and sharing the experience, is just plain joyful — and inevitably raises new questions.
One morning last February, Mrs. Kogler went to fill her feeders, when a chickadee perched in an ash tree caught her eye.
“I poured seed in my hand and sidled over with my arm stretched out,” she said. “That bird landed on my thumb, looked me right in the eye and did his little chick-a-dee-dee-dee thing,” she said, mimicking the bird’s call. “Then he pecked my thumb twice and flew over to the feeder."
Was he scolding her for being late, Mrs. Kogler wondered? “I felt he was expressing something,” she said, chuckling. “I was privileged to be chastised by a chickadee.”
Who knows, maybe he knows something we need to know.