Story last updated at 11/26/2008 - 10:40 am
As the snow falls and bears tuck in for the winter, many people begin putting out feeders with seeds or baskets with suet to enjoy another season of bird watching. An east coast researcher is hoping to capitalize on an Alaska pastime and get some help him with an ongoing avian project.
"The more people who are letting us know what they are seeing in their own back yards and neighborhoods, the better we can track changes in Alaska bird populations and better understand the unique challenges facing birds in the state," said David Bonter, the leader of Project FeederWatch, based out of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York.
Project FeederWatch is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at back yards, nature centers, community areas, and other locales in North America. It utilizes local "FeederWatchers" who periodically count the highest numbers of each species they see at their feeders from November through early April, in an effort to help scientists track broadscale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.
"Alaska is a unique treasure for birds and bird watchers. The amazing diversity of habitats translates into an equally amazing diversity of birds. Although many species leave Alaska in the winter, those that remain are well-adapted to surviving the environmental challenges. Unfortunately, we have relatively little data on bird populations in Alaska given the vast size of the state," Bonter said.
Last season, Alaska FeederWatchers reported 64 species, with common and hoary redpolls reported in the greatest average numbers. Bonter is hoping to have more FeederWatchers this season to accrue even more data.
It is open to people of all birding skill levels and backgrounds, including children, families, individuals, classrooms, retired persons, youth groups, nature centers and bird clubs.
"Almost anyone can participate. The only requirement is that they can count. We will send all of the necessary materials (except the feeders and the seed), including a poster to help identify the birds that are likely to be seen at feeders in your region," Bonter said.
For the $15 annual participation fee, participants also receive a research kit that includes a FeederWatcher's handbook with tips for how to safely attract birds to your yard, instructions, a subscription to BirdScope - the newsletter of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a Winter Bird Highlights - a magazine that summarizes annual results from Project FeederWatch, and a calender.
"Staff here at Cornell are also available to help with questions about bird identification, or general bird questions," Bonter said.
As to how many people currently take part in the project, Bonter said there are participants in all 50 states and all Canadian provinces.
"About 15,000 people participate each year. Most people submit their counts through our online data entry system, but we do have paper data forms for people who would rather not go online," he said.
Bonter said participants follow a simple protocol for collecting data that allows researchers to combine information from all over North America, and this information is put to good use.
"We use FeederWatch data primarily to track changes in the distribution and abundance of feeder birds. We publish in scientific journals and popular magazines," he said.
This is also the reason more Alaska FeederWatchers are needed.
"The counts participants submit will make sure that your birds - or lack of birds - are represented in our papers and in the results found in the Explore Data section of (the FeederWatch) Web site," he said.
Bonter said the fact that participants' observations can help contribute to science and the knowledge of bird populations is a big draw for many people, but not all.
"People also like to have an 'excuse' to occasionally sit back and watch the birds," he said.
For more information on Project FeederWatch visit the Web site www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw, or for more information about the type of research produced from the project, visit http://www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/News/ScientificPapers.htm.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.