From: Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Published October 12, 2004 09:26 AM

"FeederWatchers" Track Birds in Unexpected Places, Cornell Lab of Ornithology Seeks Volunteers to Watch Birds

Some might be surprised to find hummingbirds at feeders in the Southeast in winter, or robins and bluebirds at feeders in the North. "Common knowledge" places these birds in warmer climates during the coldest times of the year. Thanks to the help of bird-feeding enthusiasts from across North America, researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology are learning that conventional wisdom is not always correct.

Much is being learned about populations, thanks to more than 15,000 bird observers who participate in Project FeederWatch, a Cornell citizen-science project in which volunteers count the numbers and kinds of bird species that visit their winter bird feeders around their homes. Participants send their observations via paper data forms or over the Web to researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. These observations are combined so that scientists can determine the population status and distribution of the nation's birds over time and across their North American winter range.

FeederWatchers would be among the first to acknowledge that feeding hummingbirds is generally considered a summertime activity in the eastern United States and Canada. These fast-flying dynamos move northward as the spring flowers begin to bloom. As summer fades, hummingbirds are typically thought to disappear to tropical climates long before the last of the leaves drop, migrating in order to secure continued access to nectar supplies. But you don't need to travel to Arizona, California, and points south to see hummingbirds in winter.

Reports of hummingbirds wintering in the Southeast and along the Gulf Coast are increasing. Perhaps more surprisingly, these are not the same birds or even the same species seen in the region during the summer. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the only species found east of Texas during the breeding season. During the winter, however, most hummingbirds in the Southeast and along the Gulf Coast are actually Rufous Hummingbirds. This species typically winters in Mexico, but vagrants were reported throughout the Southeast and as far north as Ohio last winter. Bird banders in the Carolinas recorded Rufous, Black-chinned, and Calliope hummingbirds last winter all species that breed in the West and normally winter in the tropics.

Are the winter ranges of hummingbirds changing? "Without more historical data it is difficult to know for sure," says Dr. David Bonter, a Cornell researcher and FeederWatch project coordinator. "But given the vast amount of data provided by FeederWatch participants, we are certainly learning that many birds are wintering in the U.S."

Hummingbirds are not the only species showing up in unexpected places. In the Northeast, robins and bluebirds are typically regarded as a sure sign of spring. However, FeederWatch reports confirm that these species can be found throughout New England during any month of the year. "The counts submitted by volunteers are forcing us to reexamine the conventional wisdom regarding the whereabouts of birds in winter," says Bonter. Although they are not seed-eaters, robins and bluebirds can be attracted to feeders that offer fruits, mealworms, and possibly suet.

FeederWatch data have also documented the recent shifts in the distribution of birds in the West—possibly in response to forest fires. Researchers found that Pinyon Jays visited feeders more often than normal after widespread wildfires impacted their preferred habitats and food supplies. Other species, like the White-crowned Sparrow, were difficult to find last winter in areas of California that had been affected by the worst fire season in state history. In fact, FeederWatch counts of White-crowned Sparrows dropped to a 16-year low in California. Bonter points out that although it is difficult to link changes in sparrow counts to the fires of 2003, the winter distribution of these birds could shift in response to the availability of food and habitat.

With more bird enthusiasts sharing their observations with scientists, much more can be learned about bird populations. FeederWatchers provided nearly 5.6 million bird observations during the 2003-2004 FeederWatch season. The cumulative FeederWatch database will top one million checklists during the project's 18th season, which starts in November.

People of all ages and skill levels are invited to help scientists better understand bird populations. Learn more about Project FeederWatch at or by calling the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at 800/843-2473 (in Canada, contact Bird Studies Canada at 888-448-2473). The $15 enrollment fee ($12 for Lab members) helps defray the cost of materials, which include a full-color identification poster of common feeder birds, a calendar, the FeederWatcher's handbook, instructions, access to the online data entry system, and a one-year subscription to BirdScope, the newsletter of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a not-for-profit membership institution interpreting and conserving the earth's biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds.

Allison Wells
Director, Communication & Outreach

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