© Pam Koch
Project FeederWatch is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other locales in North America. FeederWatchers periodically count the birds they see at their feeders from November through early April and send their counts to Project FeederWatch. FeederWatch data help scientists track broadscale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.
Anyone interested in birds can participate. FeederWatch is conducted by people of all skill levels and backgrounds, including children, families, individuals, classrooms, retired persons, youth groups, nature centers, and bird clubs. You can count birds as often as every week, or as infrequently as you like: the schedule is completely flexible. All you need is a bird feeder, bird bath, or plantings that attract birds.
New participants are sent a Research Kit with complete instructions for participating, as well as a bird identification poster and more. You provide the feeder(s) and seed. Then each fall participants receive our 16-page, year-end report, Winter Bird Highlights. Participants also receive access to the digital version of Living Bird, the Cornell Lab’s award-winning, quarterly magazine.
There is an $18 annual participation fee for U.S. residents ($15 for Cornell Lab members). Canadians can participate by joining Bird Studies Canada for CAN$35. The participation fee covers materials, staff support, web design, data analysis, and the year-end report (Winter Bird Highlights). Project FeederWatch is supported almost entirely by participation fees. Without the support of our participants, this project wouldn’t be possible.
Project FeederWatch is operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada.
When thousands of FeederWatchers in communities across North America count birds and send their tallies to the FeederWatch database, the result is a treasure trove of numbers, which FeederWatch scientists analyze to draw a picture of winter bird abundance and distribution.
FeederWatch data show which bird species visit feeders at thousands of locations across the continent every winter. The data also indicate how many individuals of each species are seen. This information can be used to measure changes in the winter ranges and abundances of bird species over time.
With each season, FeederWatch increases in importance as a unique monitoring tool for more than 100 bird species that winter in North America.
What sets FeederWatch apart from other monitoring programs is the detailed picture that FeederWatch data provide about weekly changes in bird distribution and abundance across the United States and Canada. Importantly, FeederWatch data tell us where birds are as well as where they are not. This crucial information enables scientists to piece together the most accurate population maps.
Because FeederWatchers count the number of individuals of each species they see several times throughout the winter, FeederWatch data are extremely powerful for detecting and explaining gradual changes in the wintering ranges of many species. In short, FeederWatch data are important because they provide information about bird population biology that cannot be detected by any other available method.
Population sizes of many species vary from year to year. Downward trends for two, three, or even more years may not indicate actual population declines; in fact, such trends may simply reflect short-term weather patterns or other variations in natural food supply and abundance. Sometimes, however, the data reveal a long-term population decline of a particular species. When bird population scientists become aware of such a trend, they evaluate what they know about the species, its habitat, and other factors that may be causing its decline. For example, is the species’ food in short supply? Has the amount of suitable habitat changed on the species’ breeding or wintering grounds? Has a potentially competitive species shown a population increase?
For example, FeederWatch data from Florida showed that the winter population of the Painted Bunting declined steadily since the 1980s. This information, combined with complementary data from the Breeding Bird Survey (showing that breeding populations of Painted Buntings have declined at a rate of about 4 percent per year) led the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission to begin a systematic monitoring program of bunting populations so they could learn how to protect them.
So, by combining all they know about a species from monitoring data and intensive research projects, scientists can begin to understand why a species is declining, and to make recommendations for its recovery before it is too late.
Project FeederWatch data are used to document and understand the distribution and abundance of birds that visit feeders in North America. In 2017 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Project FeederWatch, the Cornell Lab’s Living Bird magazine published an article highlighting some of the things researchers have learned from FeederWatch data over the years.
The massive amounts of data collected by FeederWatchers across the continent help scientists understand
FeederWatch information and results are regularly published in
FeederWatch data are also used to help Project FeederWatch participants and Lab of Ornithology members learn more about feeder birds through the project’s annual publication, Winter Bird Highlights, which reports results from each season.
Project FeederWatch had its roots in Ontario in the mid-1970s. Through Canada’s Long Point Bird Observatory, Dr. Erica Dunn established the Ontario Bird Feeder Survey in 1976. After a successful 10-year run with more than 500 participants, its organizers realized that only a continental survey could accurately monitor the large-scale movements of birds. Therefore, Long Point Bird Observatory decided to expand the survey to cover all of North America.
Realizing they would need a strong partner in this venture, Long Point approached the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and a perfect match was soon made. The Cornell Lab’s connection to thousands of bird enthusiasts across the United States, its sophisticated computer systems, and Long Point’s experience at managing feeder surveys made Project FeederWatch a hit from the start.
In the winter of 1987-88, more than 4,000 people enrolled. FeederWatchers represented every state in the U.S. except Hawaii and most provinces in Canada, especially Ontario. The dream to systematically survey winter feeder birds over a wide geographic range was in place.
Since then the number of project participants has grown to more than 20,000. Project FeederWatch continues to be a cooperative research project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada (formerly the Long Point Bird Observatory).
Today, FeederWatch is a proven tool for monitoring the distribution and abundance of winter bird populations.
“Project FeederWatch taught me so much in such a short time. I loved feeding and watching the birds before, but now it is much more interesting and useful.” Deborah Yesko, Cornelius, NC.
“Thank you for providing us with a motivation to really pay attention to our local bird populations. Winter weekends, especially snowy ones, go by very quickly when watching for birds!” Kathy and Steve Olsen, Holden, MA.
“We always wondered what kinds of birds were coming to our feeders, but it was hard to identify them with the books we have. Project FeederWatch was a fun way to learn their names, and your poster made it easy.” Christopher Love, Latrobe, PA.
“Not only is our son learning from FeederWatch, but so are we! We have been amazed by what he can tell us about the birds at our feeder.” Allison McLendon, Irmo, SC.
“When I became seriously injured in a car accident, I thought I would be unable to do FeederWatch. But I managed to maneuver my wheelchair to my ‘bird watching window’ to do my counts. It meant the world to me to be able to participate.” Elizabeth Mescavage, Northampton, PA.
“I have 144 sixth grade students who FeederWatch. They are thrilled that scientists really use their data.” Bob Welch, 6th grade teacher, Greenville, OH.
“Project FeederWatch gives our visitors another fun reason to bird watch at our nature center. Our volunteers work hard to count and record our birds, and they love it.” Rebecca Hill-Larsen, Martha Lafite Thompson Nature Sanctuary, Liberty, MO.
Participants across North America are at the core of Project FeederWatch. But besides the army of citizen scientists collecting information on birds at their feeders, several people in the United States and Canada are responsible for archiving and analyzing the data and the day-to-day operation of the project. Project FeederWatch is administered in the United States by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and in Canada by Bird Studies Canada.
Emma Greig, Project Leader, U.S.: Emma Greig joined Project FeederWatch in 2013. She manages all aspects of the project as well as reviewing flagged records, analyzing data, and writing scientific journal articles.
Anne Marie Johnson and Chelsea Benson, Project Assistants, U.S.: Anne Marie Johnson and Chelsea Benson do a great job of keeping FeederWatch running smoothly. Both write and edit printed materials and web pages; answer email, phone calls, and letters; and much more. In addition, Anne Marie makes sure that research kits and other materials are designed, printed, inventoried, and mailed out while Chelsea focuses on data processing and social networking.
Kerrie Wilcox, Project Leader, Canada: Kerrie Wilcox took over Project FeederWatch at Bird Studies Canada in the fall of 2005. She supervises all aspects of the project in Canada, as well as corresponding with participants, reviewing flagged records, and writing FeederWatch reports.
Kris Dobney and Rosie Kirton, Project Assistants, Canada: Rosie Kirton and Kris Dobney provide participant support. They mail out FeederWatch kits, inventory materials, answer calls about membership and more.
Volunteers, U.S.: In addition to relying on work study students and seasonal temporary staff, the successful operation of FeederWatch, particularly the processing of data forms, is absolutely dependent upon the generous help of volunteers. Shirley McAneny and Larry and Susan P. Newman help us process data and correspondence that come through the mail, ship research kits to participants, and many other things. We are deeply indebted to the service all the volunteers provide.
Additional Staff Support
The scientific and educational aspects of FeederWatch are overseen in the U.S. by the director of Citizen Science, David Bonter.
We are grateful to Wesley Hochachka for the tremendous scientific support he provides.
The online data entry was created by Birdsource staff, and the web pages and FeederWatch database are managed and maintained by Cornell Lab programmers.
The colorful and informative materials you see may have been written by the project staff, but the communications staff at the Cornell Lab often edit and design the materials before they hit the press. They also distribute press releases and help to promote the project.
All things must start somewhere, and your participation in FeederWatch usually starts at the membership office. The membership personnel in both countries enter your contact information into the database and ensure that your kits are sent to you after you sign up.
FeederWatch is truly a team effort. Many thanks to those who are involved every step of the way!