Cornell Program Helps Public Count the Birds

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Want to Take Part?

For the past 19 years, ornithologists at Cornell University have solicited help from the general public to count birds from November until April. David Bonter, Project Feeder Watch coordinator, tells Liane Hansen how the program works.


Bird watchers across the country are uniting again. For the past 19 years, ornithologists at Cornell University have solicited help from the general public to count birds from November until April. All you have to do is put up a bird feeder and submit your weekly total to the scientists at Cornell. David Bonter is the Project FeederWatch coordinator and also an ornithologist at Cornell University, and he joins us this weekend from Rochester, New York.

Hi, David.

Mr. DAVID BONTER (Cornell University): Hi.

HANSEN: Tell us how many amateur bird watchers out there are involved in Project FeederWatch.

Mr. BONTER: Well, right now we have about 15,000 participants, and they're spread out all over the United States and Canada, counting the birds periodically that come and visit their own backyard bird feeders and sending that information to us here at Cornell, so we can get a much better understanding of where birds are in the wintertime and how populations are changing over time.

HANSEN: Now are you just counting the number of birds, or are your watchers also telling you what kind of birds are showing up at feeders?

Mr. BONTER: They're definitely identifying the species and reporting the maximum number of each species that they see during their counts, and sending that information to us.

HANSEN: And it's all around the country, so we're talking sea birds and land-based birds and all of that.

Mr. BONTER: Well, Project FeederWatch is based on a feeding station, so it's essentially only looking at birds that will come to your backyard bird feeders, so it's not all birds, but a good number of birds--about a hundred species that we monitor quite well.

HANSEN: Which bird tops the watchers' lists?

Mr. BONTER: Across North America, by far the most common bird visiting bird feeders is the dark-eyed junco. Black-capped chickadee is also up near the top of the list, and downy woodpecker is a very common species as well, seen across the continent.

HANSEN: And what do you do with this research?

Mr. BONTER: Oh, we've done quite a bit over the years. In fact, just last year we received our one millionth checklist submitted since the beginning of FeederWatch, so it's a really remarkable set of data that allows us to look at changes in the distribution of birds, where they're seen across the country in various years, and changes in the abundance of birds, too. So we've done things like track the spread of an eye disease that affected house finch populations and seen that as it's moved across the country and how that's impacted house finch populations. We've looked at range expansions in some species; red-bellied woodpecker is a good example of a bird that's far more common now than it was even just a decade ago, and now we're seeing it spread up into New England and up into Atlantic Canada. So we can see changes in what birds are where and look at changes in populations over time because of all of the efforts of folks out there letting us know what's going on in their own back yards.

HANSEN: David Bonter is an ornithologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. And if you're interested in helping with Project FeederWatch, go to our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of "Rockin' Robin")

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HANSEN: It's 22 minutes before the hour.

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