It is that time of year again: The weather is getting colder, and it is time to begin preparing for winter. As our gardens prepare to go dormant for the winter, we can think ahead to the joy that bird feeding will bring. Fall is a good time to wash the feeders and to stock up on seed.
There are a few common questions and myths about bird feeding.
First, the birds will not become dependent on your feeder as a source of food and die if you don’t fill it while you are gone for a week or two. Even when they eat at feeders, birds eat from many other sources of natural food each day. Feeders do help some birds find a reliable source of food during heavy snow or ice storms, so you may want to have someone keep it full when you are not available.
Uncooked rice does not expand in the bird’s stomach and kill it. Many species of birds eat rice and other grains in the fields where they grow and are not harmed. Peanut butter does not stick in the bird’s throat and choke it. You can mix cornmeal, oatmeal, grit, or birdseed with the peanut butter to make it less sticky if you want. Mixing vegetable shortening and peanut butter at about a 50–50 ratio and then adding cornmeal or birdseed makes a very appetizing and inexpensive suet substitute that many birds love.
A bird’s feet will not stick to a metal bird-feeder perch. Birds do not have sweat glands in their feet, which are covered in scales made from material like your fingernails. Just think of all the metal fences and telephone wires they sit on all day long and do not stick to.
This is also the time of year that people who feed birds can join the 15,000 other people who are part of the largest and longest-running citizen-science project. For 34 years, Project FeederWatch has been managed by the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology. It is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, and other locales in North America. FeederWatch volunteers periodically count the numbers of each species they see at their feeders from November through April. The project helps scientists track the movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.
All you have to do is count all the birds in your yard at one time, then report the numbers to the Lab. You don’t even need a feeder to do the count, and you can count on your own schedule. The data collected show which bird species visit landscapes at thousands of locations across the continent every winter. The data also indicate how many individuals of each species are seen. This information can be used to measure changes in the distributions and abundances of bird species over time.
Learn more about the project at FeederWatch.org, where you can see maps, trend graphs, and other results generated from FeederWatch data. FeederWatchers receive a Research Kit that includes the FeederWatch Handbook, a guide to feeding birds; a full-color identification poster of common feeder birds; a calendar featuring photographs taken by participants; and paper data forms and/or access to the online data entry system.
As the Lab is a nonprofit organization, there is an $18 annual participation fee ($15 for members of the Lab of Ornithology) that covers your materials and newsletter subscription, staff support, website support, and data analysis. Visit the website or call 800-843-2473 (BIRD).