More than 45 million people watch birds around their homes and away from home, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Every winter season, Project FeederWatch aims to engage purveyors of the popular hobby in an endeavor in citizen science as a means to gather valuable data about their feathered friends.
Dr. Emma Greig, who leads Project FeederWatch at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, explained that the project grew from the idea that there is scientific value in harnessing people’s love for watching and feeding birds and was spearheaded by a woman named Erica Dunn with Bird Studies Canada in the mid-1970s. Recognizing the need to increase the study’s geographical range, Bird Studies Canada partnered with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to form Project FeederWatch as it is known today. For the past three-plus decades from November through April, a growing number of citizen scientists across the U.S. and Canada have been collecting biologically meaningful data through observation.
“Between 20,000 and 25,000 people sign up to participate in Project FeederWatch every year,” Greig said. “Last season was our biggest group yet, at nearly 25,000 participants.”
Mary Guthrie, Director of Corporate Marketing Partnerships at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, noted the passion of birdwatchers across the U.S. and Canada has led to a tremendous participant retention rate. “Hundreds of people do this for decades,” Guthrie said. “They enjoy the hobby and by adding the opportunity to use their home to contribute to something larger, they feel a greater sense of purpose and satisfaction,” she added.
Participant enthusiasm allows Project FeederWatch to crowdsource data acquisition about bird population, migratory patterns, behavioral interactions and even disease dynamics, Greig said.
“The growth of the project has allowed us to set new scientific goals beyond just counting birds that come to feeders in standardized way,” she said. “We now let people collect data about birds displacing one another at feeders, helping us gain insight into dominant hierarchies on continental scale. People also have been monitoring conjunctivitis, or house finch eye disease, in recent years, which teaches us about disease dynamics and how they evolve over time,” Greig added.
As for what insights scientists hope to gain from Project FeederWatch this year, Greig said she was most curious about whether last year’s observed trend of fewer birds at feeders will persist this winter. With this in mind, her best tip for participating birdwatchers is to not get discouraged by low counts or a smaller variety of species at their feeders.
“It’s just as important to know where birds aren't as it is to find where they are,” Greig pointed out. “Counts with few species and low numbers are just as fascinating and valuable as counts with tons of species,” she added.
Greig also recommended birdwatchers utilize a product the project has already contributed valuably to, the Lab of Ornithology's app called Merlin. The app incorporates more than 100 years of the lab’s research, including that gathered from Project FeederWatch, into a database that helps people identify the bird they are looking at in real time through five simple questions.
Project FeederWatch’s ability to connect the birdwatching community and bring people and nature together has gained the support of businesses with like-minded missions such as Wild Birds Unlimited. The brand sponsors Project FeederWatch’s BirdSpotter photo contest, which happens every two weeks for the duration of the project. Customers and participants send in their photos for a chance to win prizes and have their photos featured in Wild Birds Unlimited’s annual calendar.
“We had been receiving tons of awesome photos and were looking for a way to make the project more community-based, and Wild Birds Unlimited was the perfect partner for us,” Guthrie said. “The contest gives people tons of chances to win because thought is given to awarding not just beautiful birds, but unexpected or interesting things that happen at feeders, too,” she continued.
For the Project FeederWatch team, one of the biggest returns from the contest and in the project itself year in and year out is people’s enthusiasm to get outside and see what's going on in their own backyard.
Beth Melonuk, a participant from Fort Laramie, Wyoming, said, "Project FeederWatch gave me one of the best winters I've ever had. I learned so much, and I looked forward to every count day.”
“The engagement and enthusiasm from the birdwatching community is what makes Project FeederWatch successful,” Greig said. “The joyfulness of the hobby is something we support, take part in and in turn benefit from,” she concluded.
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