The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

December 14, 2013

FeederWatch can predict a birder’s winter

By Scott Shalaway
For The Register-Herald

CAMERON — It’s time for another season of Project FeederWatch, Cornell University’s premier citizen science opportunity sponsored by the Lab of Ornithology.

New FeederWatch project director Emma Grieg says anyone can participate. “Our materials teach what participants need to know. And volunteers don’t need to identify every species they see. Even counts of cardinals and chickadees provide useful data,” she said.

Thanks to last year’s results, I can confidently predict what species you are likely to see. Assuming you have suitable habitat with at least a few trees and shrubs for cover, you can expect 15 to 20 species over the course of the winter.        

Based on data submitted from 5,941 northeastern sites last year, here are the most commonly seen species. Each was reported from more than half of the FeederWatch sites.

Chickadees (black-capped or Carolina, depending on your location), dark-eyed juncos, downy woodpeckers, mourning doves, northern cardinals, blue jays, white-breasted nuthatches, American goldfinches, house finches, red-bellied woodpeckers, tufted titmice, European starlings, hairy woodpeckers, red-breasted nuthatches, house sparrows, American robins, American crows and common grackles were the 18 most frequently reported species.

Last year was a banner year for nuthatches and woodpeckers. Red-breasted nuthatches arrived early and stayed all winter in many areas. Red-breasts visited the greatest number of feeding stations in FeederWatch history (64 percents, vs the previous record of 58 percent in 2007-08). White-breasted nuthatches, a nonmigratory species, visited 88 percent of FeederWatch sites.

Several other species moved higher on the list of percentage of sites visited. Northern cardinals (90 percent), tufted titmice (68 percent), and Carolina wrens (47 percent) appeared at more feeders than ever. And for the first time, red-bellied woodpeckers moved into the Top 10, visiting 69 percent of FeederWatch sites.

One of the virtues of FeederWatch is its ability to detect long-term trends. The abundance of woodpeckers last year seems associated with a new abundant food source. Emerald ash borers, a nonnative beetle devastating midwestern forests from Michigan to New York, provide a near unlimited food source for downy, hair, and red-bellied woodpeckers and white-breasted nuthatches. Furthermore, the trees killed by the woodborers provide snags in which woodpeckers and other cavity nesters can nest. So it seems the invasion of an exotic pest may actually benefit some birds.

Another FeederWatch project launched last year involved tracking the behavior of individual birds. Attaching tiny transmitters to wild chickadees, titmice and nuthatches, scientists were able to monitor their visits to feeders. More than 470,000 visits to specially “wired” feeders were recorded revealing a wealth of information about how birds use feeders. It turns out that during very cold weather, and despite the risk of predation, birds forage constantly all day long. Food is a powerful motivator.

Launched in 1987, Project FeederWatch compiles information gathered by volunteers from all across North America. Last year 127,210 checklists were submitted by 20,569 participants who reported a total of 7,308,691 individual birds. FeederWatch volunteers devote just a few minutes every week or two to identify and tally the birds that visit their feeders. No special knowledge is required because the material provided to volunteers includes posters that facilitate bird identification. The best time to see the most birds at feeders is on cold, snowy mornings.

To become a FeederWatch volunteer, visit, or call 800-843 2473 during normal business hours, or send a check to Project FeederWatch, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, P.O. Box 11, Ithaca, NY 14851-0011. The $15 fee ($12 for Lab of Ornithology members) covers all materials, data analysis, and publication of each year’s results.

If Project FeederWatch sounds great, but you live in an upper floor apartment or for some reason cannot set up bird feeders, I have great news. Thanks to an Internet-based feeder cam, you can watch live video from a feeder cam in northern Ontario. It features a variety of northern species, including evening grosbeaks and an occasional ruffed grouse, that we seldom see this far south. I try to check in every day to get a taste of the far north. Visit 38/FeederWatch_Cam/ and enjoy.


Correction: Last week I listed a web address for getting more information about the snowy owl invasion. The correct address is, not .com.

— Contact Dr. Shalaway via his web site (, via e-mail at or at 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.