I like to think I’ve gotten smarter, but maybe I’ve just gotten lazier. I’ve answered a lot of questions from readers about bird feeders over the years, often after doing time-consuming research. Nowadays I just go to feederwatch.org.
Project FeederWatch is another of the indispensable birding tools available from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The Cornell Lab has also given us eBird — a worldwide bird-listing database; Merlin — a bird identification app; and allaboutbirds.org — arguably, the best online information source about North American birds.
At its core, Project FeederWatch is a citizen-science initiative that enables backyard birders to contribute their individual winter bird observations to a collective database. Scientists then use the data to track the movement of birds across the entire continent. These movements may be related to normal migration, or to the wanderings of birds that typically roam in search of food, or even to the range expansion of birds due to climate change.
Of course, the more we know, the better the data we can contribute. Thus, feederwatch.org is packed full of information about feeders and food. It offers easy tips on difficult bird identifications. It provides advice on dealing with birds in trouble, whether due to disease, window strikes, or cats.
The FAQ page is priceless. Some of the frequently asked questions include: “Will feeding birds in late summer stop their migration?” “My feeders are attracting rats. What can I do?” “Can a bird’s feet stick to metal perches?” “Can birds choke on peanut butter?” “If birds eat uncooked rice, can it swell up in their throats and stomachs and kill them?” “How can I stop blue jays from chipping the paint off my house?”
Everyone who purchases birdseed by the 40-pound bag should review the sections on feeders. Feeders come in various shapes and sizes, each one attracting a certain subset of birds. Furthermore, some feeders are designed to discourage potentially unwanted birds, such as grackles, pigeons and house sparrows. I’ve been saying for years that the top food choice for most bird feeders should be black-oil sunflower seeds. I’m relieved to read that Project FeederWatch agrees with me.
I intend to try some of their online advice myself. Besides food, birds need gritty materials to help digest seeds and grains. I’ll save mussel shells and eggshells from now on, sterilizing them, grinding them up, and setting them out as a much-coveted source of calcium and grit. That’s a twofer for me, since my home compost pile is woefully incapable. My flower bed still has intact oyster shells lodged in the compost that I dumped on it five years ago.
If you’re like me, you’re in a never-ending war with squirrels. It’s generally a losing battle. Squirrels have all day to figure out how to beat you. Nevertheless, you can even the odds, using the tips on the website.
One or two tips are head-scratchers, such as: “If raccoons, deer, or moose become a nuisance, the best tactic is to make your feeders inaccessible with fencing or baffles.” Really? I have yet to meet the fencing or baffle that will discourage a moose. The best bet is to use the same strategy recommended for naughty bears: give up and bring the feeders indoors. Maybe feeder moose are a bigger problem elsewhere. Around here, we just don’t have that bad of a moose infestation.
Most of the advice is simple and quick. For more in-depth detail, the project offers free downloadable booklets. I opened the one on attracting hummingbirds, just to see if I could learn anything new. I did. Setting out banana peels attracts fruit flies, which the hummingbirds will snatch out of the air. Avoid pesticides. Hummingbirds rely on spider silk to build their nests, so a spider-friendly yard attracts them. Who knew?
You can look up the Top 25 feeder birds in each state, just for fun. Can you guess what was No. 1 in Maine? Duh. Black-capped chickadees visited 98.89 percent of surveyed feeders, according to our 271 FeederWatchers.
Project FeederWatch overlaps a bit with the Great Backyard Bird Count, a separate annual event scheduled for this weekend. The Great Backyard Bird Count invites participants worldwide to send in their backyard sightings throughout the weekend, even if they have as little as 15 minutes to spare for observation during the four-day event. Cornell Lab organizes this event, as well, supported by a separate website at birdcount.org.
The weather has been weird this winter. Fortunately, much of the birding entertainment is right in our own backyards.