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Not Just Harbingers of Spring


Give Mike Anderson a list of birds in your backyard and he'll describe your landscape. Got crows? Could be agricultural or maybe you are composting. Cardinals? You've got good cover. Red-tails? You're near woods. House sparrows? Just a typical home harboring one of the billions of the English imports.

Anderson's reason for wanting birds in his own backyard is “intrinsic value. Because they're there," he says. “Part of the whole natural system."

Got bugs? Anderson, program director of New Jersey Audubon Society Scherman-Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary in Bernardsville, says a lot of birds are good insect eaters and they're your non-herbicide-based pest management program for gardeners.

Although some species may like your mulberries, cherries and raspberries, they won't touch the tomatoes and string beans. Woodpeckers glean insects from under bark. Finches eat ants. Swallows and martins eat flying insects. Warblers are really keyed in on insects, and Anderson says there are 25 species of them that nest in the region.

Last winter thousands of gardeners and others, like Anderson, who want birds in their backyards and apartment balconies joined the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), sponsored by Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society.

Counts have been tallied and interesting trends have been noted. Jeff Wells, Cornell ornithologist, describes two interesting stories:

1. crow and chickadee population drop
2. mass influx of more northern-wintering species

The decrease in crow and chickadee populations “involves the whole impact of West Nile virus," he says. “Crows in particular, but also other species like chickadees have experienced drops in certain areas. West Nile happens in pockets - hot spots. It started in the New York City area and is extending out. In the mid-west, in Chicago, we saw drops in crows and chickadees populations. In some areas we couldn't find any chickadees. Some had over an 80 or 90% drop."

Population drops are less clear in this region, he adds, and might be only in one town or a region. It all has to do with how mosquitoes are breeding. With species like crows there are hundreds of millions in the U.S. and Canada, and with casual observation it is difficult to assess a change in numbers.

“Unless you start to pay attention and count, it's a little hard to detect unless there is a massive drop," says Wells. “With the chickadee count, people had three to five times more than they thought they had after they banded them. We need lots of observers." With enough people participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count over a large area, a more accurate count will be determined.

Last year, various species of finches flew down to the U.S. from where they winter in Canada, Alaska and Siberia. “It can be a massive movement that amounts to millions of birds coming in, like this year the Common Redpoll is getting down into the southeast and the Carolinas. Somebody in Maine in late December said he had flocks coming in of hundreds of redpolls all day long. In certain areas along the East Coast, there are reports of birds streaming in off the ocean from the Maritimes off Canada. We're looking at how expansive the movements are and the species involved," he says.

Finch populations fluctuate with production of seeds they feed on in the boreal forest and more north where they breed. In good seed years, they thrive. The next year they'll have a seed crop failure which means no food, so they start heading south looking for food.

Favorite finch food includes birch, alder and weed seeds. Their favorite backyard food is thistle and sunflower seeds. Evening grosbeaks, showing long-term decline over 20 years now, have a large bill and prefer sunflower seeds.

This year, the Great Backyard Bird Count is from February 13 to 16. The GBBC is important because it's one way to monitor the health of bird populations across North America which in turn can impact humans, says Wells. Both Wells and Anderson agree that birds are one of the first warning systems on changes that affect human health. Monitoring bird populations shows how different diseases impact the birds, and also changes in the environment.

The GBBC offers a chance to learn how to identify birds and learn more about their biology and ecological interactions - great for everyone, especially kids. Anyone can do it. We, as humans, are environmental stewards so it's important from an education perspective," says Wells. “We feed birds for the birds and for the enjoyment of people, education and understanding."

Wells offers hints to attract birds to your yard:
Create little habitats to attract species in your yard.
Plant native shrubs and trees that retain seeds and berries for winter feeding, such as native cherries, birch, ash, dogwood.
Use native shrubs that provide winter shelter and in summer have places to build nests, such as bushy dogwoods and viburnums.
Put up nest boxes because it's hard to keep dead trees in the yard.

Project FeederWatch, Cornell's premier project for over 15 years now, has 12-14,000 participants across the country watching their feeders every two weeks from November to April. Participants count and keep track of species, temperature and other details. “We look at changes and track where the birds are moving. The project gives a more detailed look than the GBBC over a longer time with a smaller number of people," says Wells. Participants can start anytime, even mid-season. Register and get an instructional packet and poster to help ID birds.

Note: All photographers are Project FeederWatch participants through Cornell's Lab of Ornithology.

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published January 10, 2004

Photos to enlarge

Downy Woodpecker, courtesy Steve Leaton

American Goldfinch and Hoary Redpoll, courtesy Anne Marie Johnson

Red-bellied Woodpecker, courtesy Lisa Barker

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