Hey, birders: It’s time for Project Feeder Watch

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bird feeder
(Farm and Dairy file photo)

Project FeederWatch, Cornell University’s citizen science program sponsored by the Lab of Ornithology, has begun a new season, and new volunteers are always welcome.

Easy to join

FeederWatch project director Dr. Emma Grieg, who has just completed her first year on the job, says anyone can participate.

“Our materials teach what participants need to know. Even counts of common birds such as cardinals and chickadees are useful. And volunteers don’t even need to identify every species they see,” she said.

And if volunteers have questions or problems, they are encouraged to contact FeederWatch staff by email or phone.

“We love communicating with volunteers to make their experience more rewarding,” Grieg says.

What’s in your backyard

Assuming you have suitable habitat with some woody cover, you can expect 12 to 20 species over the course of the winter.

Based on data submitted from FeederWatchers nationwide last year, the most frequently seen species was the dark-eyed junco. Other common species recorded in other states were chickadees, blue jays, mourning doves, cardinals, titmice, goldfinches, and downy woodpeckers.

“With more than 20 years of data from all across the country,” Grieg says, “we have more data than any one ornithologist could ever collect. And now we are able to publish our findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals. For example, we are getting insights into the effects of climate change on bird distribution.”

Bridges generations

One of the benefits of FeederWatch is that the army of skilled birders grows every year. Collecting the data is fun, and can be done with children and grandchildren, so I doubt the program will ever want for volunteers.

Scouting disease

One topic that FeederWatch emphasizes is the occurrence and spread of the eye disease (a type of conjunctivitis) that infects house finches.

House finch eye disease was first noticed in 1994 when people observed birds at feeders with swollen, runny eyes. It was determined to be the result of a strain of bacteria usually found in poultry.

Andre Dhondt, director of Bird Population Studies at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, led a team that trapped and tested nearly 2,000 individual birds of 53 species from 2007 to 2010. Tests revealed that 27 species of birds were infected by this bacterium.

“The results were shocking,” Dhondt says. “This bacteria, Mycoplasma gallisepticum, is much more widespread than anyone thought, although in most species there are no signs of conjunctivitis.”

In addition to house finches, species testing positive for exposure to the bacteria included black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, and American goldfinches. But exposure was also detected in forest species such as the wood thrush.

“That was another surprise,” Dhondt says. “How on earth do wood thrushes get infected with mycoplasma? They are not a feeder bird at all. We have always assumed that feeders play a major role in the transmission of the disease, and this study shows that’s not necessarily so.”

Fortunately, though many species can be infected with this bacterium, only house finches regularly show swollen eyes as symptoms, and FeederWatchers are still collecting data on this species.

If you see infected birds at your feeders, here’s what the Lab of Ornithology suggests: Leave sick birds alone, take down the feeders and clean them thoroughly, and be sure to wash your hands afterward. And just make it a rule to keep your feeders clean.

Launched in 1987, Project FeederWatch compiles information gathered by volunteers from all across North America.

Last year 128,586 checklists were submitted from 9,940 unique locations by more than 20,000 volunteers. To become a FeederWatch volunteer, visit www.feederwatch.org, call 800-843 2473 during normal business hours, or send a check to Project FeederWatch, P.O. Box 11, Ithaca, NY 14851-0011.

The $18 fee ($15 for Lab of Ornithology members) covers all materials, data analysis, and publication of each year’s results.

FeederWatch Cam

If FeederWatch sounds interesting, but for some reason you cannot set up bird feeders, watch the “FeederWatch Cam”  to see a live video feed from a feeding station in northern Ontario. It features a variety of northern species, including gray jays, grosbeaks, and finches that are unlikely to be seen in the lower 48.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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