A tale of two count sites
Anne Coffey started FeederWatching in 2013 with an active count site in a place one would expect to see few birds—Tysons, Virginia, a densely populated area near Washington, DC. Her site was surrounded by high-rise buildings and within walking distance from a large shopping mall. Nevertheless, she hosted a busy feeder station and saw as many as 17 different species and 49 individual birds during one count. She wrote, “When I put out my feeders for the last FeederWatch season there, my first visitor was a Red-shouldered Hawk, which sat in a nearby tree waiting for the songbirds to arrive. After two unsuccessful hours, the hawk left, and songbirds began to visit.”
Then in November 2017 Anne moved to Asheville, North Carolina, and started her fourth FeederWatch season. Her new neighborhood did not permit seed feeders, so she hung a suet feeder and a fruit feeder above a berry-laden holly bush. In December, after doing two counts with no birds, she wrote to FeederWatch to say that although she had seen Carolina Wrens and American Robins close by, no birds were coming to her count site. She asked, “Should I continue with this exercise when I may not get any birds visiting? It seems like a waste of your time having to include zero counts.”
We assured Anne that the absence of birds is just as important to our data as the presence of birds, and we encouraged her to keep counting. Although Anne’s low counts could be attributed to the lack of seed feeders, having data from sights with no seed feeders allows researchers to assess the impact of seed feeders on winter feeder-bird populations.
Anne went on to watch her feeder area for 6 more counts before observing any birds despite watching at all times of day and watching the feeders for 1–4 hours during most of the two-day counts. She found the observations especially discouraging, because she was working part-time at a Wild Birds Unlimited store and was hearing customers share their exciting sightings. She wrote, “It’s definitely not as much fun to get so little traffic, but it helped to know it was worthwhile.”
Finally on her 9th count that season, she observed two chickadees, and additional birds starting visiting after that, including a Northern Mockingbird, a species that is notoriously territorial, especially when protecting a fruiting shrub like holly. She ended her first season having observed no more than 5 species and 6 individual birds in any one two-day count. Undaunted, Anne counted for a second year in North Carolina and was rewarded with 14 individuals from 8 species on her first count. Her counts dipped from there, but she continued counting through the season.
More recently Anne moved to Manlius, New York, where she was able to include seed feeders in her count site again, and not surprisingly, her counts grew to as many as 14 different species and 28 individual birds during one count in the spring.
FeederWatch wants all counts
In addition to wanting counts when few or no birds are seen, researchers want counts of common species. It’s more fun to watch feeders when a variety of birds are visiting and visiting in large numbers, but having more or different birds to count has no effect on the value of your data to researchers. As described in an article in the Learn section of our website, years ago in Great Britain, researchers considered House Sparrows as nuisance birds and didn’t track their populations. More recently people started noticing fewer House Sparrows and as researchers began to assess House Sparrow populations and look for reasons for the decline, they regretted that they had neglected to collect House Sparrow counts for decades. Thanks to FeederWatchers like Anne who keep counting even when they see the same birds every week, or when they see no birds, we are able to assess population trends in all winter feeder birds.