Posted: January 24, 2012, 12:00 a.m. PDT
As many birders know, nature does not become entirely dormant during the winter months. Signs of life might require more effort to detect, but they definitely remain visible to keen-eyed observers. The quiet season includes a fair number of birding projects that can keep birders’ eyes, ears and minds occupied – and working on behalf of scientists and birds.
Citizen-science projects abound at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., and they invite backyard birders – not just listers out in the field – to observe, record and share data that works toward species and habitat conservation. The projects’ time commitments vary – one asks for as few as 15 minutes a day at home – so birders of all ages and skill levels can find opportunities to watch birds and help scientists.
A computer and Internet access play integral roles in many citizen-science projects, but participants can send paper data forms for Project FeederWatch, for instance. The PFW paper forms arrive in the research kit mailed to participants who pay the $15 fee and register for Project FeederWatch, which starts in mid-November and continues to April. A research kit includes instructions, a bird identification poster, a bird-feeding guide, a tally sheet and a wall calendar.
Each project uses its own procedures, so potential participants need to thoroughly read all descriptions before deciding on their citizen-science activities. Birders might find that one project suits their time, skills and situations better than others. Also ask local birders – such as other members of the local National Audubon Society chapter – about their recommendations for citizen-science projects.
Some birders might think that their backyard feeding stations don’t attract a large enough number of birds or variety of species, but scientists think otherwise. Assistant Director of Citizen Science David Bonter says in the instructional video for Project FeederWatch: "There’s really no such thing as a boring count. We really want to know everything that people are seeing, even if they’re not seeing any birds at all. If people only reported the great sightings that they had, we’d have a very biased view of how bird populations are doing.”
Citizen scientists’ data about where birds are and how many of them are visiting feeders can help researchers see changes in species’ behavior and ranges. On a personal level, participants get to know the local birds even better and might see unexpected species while looking more often and more closely at their backyard feeders.
Another option for backyard birders might surprise them: Christmas Bird Count. The 24-hour project typically involves designated routes within a 15-mile-diameter circle, but feeder watchers can participate if their homes sit within a count circle. They report the observed birds to the circle’s count compiler and get to forego the $5 registration fee. The lesser-known feederwatcher option lets more birders participate in the CBC tradition, which is more than 110 years old.
Also organized by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Great Backyard Bird Count occurs in February over a four-day weekend, making it a much shorter commitment than Project FeederWatch. Scheduled for Feb. 17-20, 2012, GBBC asks that participants count birds for 15 minutes on one, two, three or four days, and it involves procedures – such as free participation – different from those of PFW. While it is possible to submit data entry via paper forms, the form has to be downloaded from the website. GBBC also offers a photo contest, which can make it even more appealing to backyard birders.
Some Cornell citizen-science projects remain available year-round. Birders can participate in CamClickr, for instance, at any time – especially good to know if you anticipate high snow levels during winter months. The online-only project ties in with cameras mounted in nestboxes and the photographs taken by those "nest cams.” After registering for free, birders can "tag” the archived photos and classify breeding behaviors, making it easier for scientists to use the photos. The software also tracks which CamClickrs has tagged the most images.
A year-round outdoor option, perhaps particularly appealing to city dwellers who want to venture beyond their yards, is Cornell’s Project PigeonWatch. Focusing on urban Rock Pigeons, the citizen-science project asks participants to count and identify the color morphs within a flock and to report any courtship behaviors. The PigeonWatch Kit appears online and includes downloadable paper forms for data entry, but participants can submit data online, too. Educational materials include a poster of seven color morphs and a reference to courtship behaviors.