in a time of bird decline, counting and feeding them, with emma greig of feederwatch
RESEARCH ON BIRD POPULATIONS published in fall of 2019 was alarming: 29 percent of all birds in the U.S. and Canada have vanished since 1970, a drop of 2.9 billion birds in our lifetime. In light of such news, Cornell Lab of Ornithology says it’s more vital than ever that citizen scientists—like all of us gardeners—monitor their own backyard birds and share their sightings.
Today’s guest, the leader of Cornell Lab’s Project FeederWatch, will tell us more about changing bird populations–including not just rare birds but among some of our most familiar backyard species, like blue jays and juncos–and also about how data from birdwatchers helps, plus best practices for feeding birds this winter and more.
Emma Grieg is the leader of Project FeederWatch at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, which for more than 30 years has fostered connections between people and birds, and also between birdwatchers and scientists, who benefit from all those extra sets of eyes to help them get a closer look at bird population changes over time. That’s Emma below, on the job during a research project in Australia, hawk in hand.
counting, and feeding, birds; a q&a with emma greig
Margaret Roach: Hi, Emma. I’ve been participating for such a long time, so you don’t have to convince me [laughter], but, yes, I love FeederWatch and other such citizen-scientist opportunities. As I said in the intro, Emma, even experts in the field of ornithology and conservation were shocked by the recent numbers about bird decline when that report was published in the journal “Science” in September, right?
Emma Greig: Yes, I think it was a surprise to all of us. Even though I think in the back of a lot of our minds we knew that lots of species were in decline, to really see the magnitude of it through this paper was eye-opening to everybody.
Margaret: I think John Fitzpatrick, the director of the Lab of Ornithology at Cornell, said the report is “our wake-up call,” and so what do you think it kind of wakes us up to need to do more, I mean to look at, and what are you thinking about even more?
Emma: I think that it really needs to… or it wakes us up to our need to recognize our impact on the environment, and to really think about what we’re doing on an individual basis and collectively to be influencing these changes in bird populations, but, also, really those are… It’s like the canary in a coal mine, right? It’s not just the birds that are changing, but it’s the environment that’s changing as well.
Margaret: Right, well-put, so can you just give us, and I know this study wasn’t a Project FeederWatch study, but can you just give us some of the top-line findings for people who may not have read about it that struck you? It wasn’t just some rare birds that were being affected at all, was it?
Emma: That’s exactly right, so the declines that the researchers observed were from Christmas Bird Counts and Breeding Bird Surveys, so these long-term citizen-science data sets. And they looked at what families of birds were showing declines and were showing increases through time, and most of the families that they looked at had declines.
So this includes sparrows, blackbirds, warblers, birds that include species we see in our backyard all the time, so that’s part of what is so surprising about it. We’re still seeing these birds, but we’re seeing fewer of them, and so it’s kind of, in some cases, this subtle effects that you probably wouldn’t notice if you didn’t have these long-term data sets which bird counts collected in a really consistent way.
Margaret: I might still see a particular type of sparrow each year and put it in my findings, but I might see three instead of seven or—and I’m just making up numbers—but the groups that are being recorded each time there is a sighting of a particular species may be smaller?
Emma: Exactly. That’s exactly right.
Margaret: Is this just the tropical migrants, or is it also birds that stick around, seem to be here more, don’t go all the way to the tropics during the winter from our northern areas or both?
Emma: Yes, it includes both, but migrants are really high on the list of species that are suffering. And I think that makes a lot of sense, because just think of all the habitat that a migrant needs: It needs breeding habitat, it needs faraway wintering habitat, and it needs stopover habitats for the trip, so you can imagine why migrants are not faring very well in the face of habitat loss.
But we also are seeing declines in some really common species like blue jays and juncos. Juncos [photo below from Wikimedia, by Ken Thomas] are the most frequently reported species in Project FeederWatch.
Margaret: Oh! [Laughter.]
Emma: It’s such a surprise that they’re declining, but they are, and so this paper just opened our eyes to what’s actually happening to the species that we think are doing just fine.
Margaret: Right. Based on what’s going on under my feeder the last 10 days or so, since I was able to put the feeders out or I risked putting them out when I was hoping the bear, the black bear, were not going to show up, some of us in rural areas have to be… even not so rural areas in some cases, but, where I am bears just walk around. They walk down the road. It doesn’t even matter. [Laughter.]
Emma: Oh, my gosh, that’s so cool.
Margaret: Yes, it is cool, but it is a little startling when… You’re right. You go to put fill the feeder and there’s someone out there holding on to the feeder and bending the pole with one finger.
Emma: Oh, my gosh, that would really give me a startle.
Margaret: They’re strong guys. But when I put them out, what happens almost instantly—and I always wait till I see the first juncos looking around—and lots and lots of juncos will be under the feeders, mostly feeding on the ground, so I wouldn’t have thought until I read the report that that was a bird that was in decline.
Emma: Yes. There really were some surprises in this report for all of us.
Margaret: The project you direct is called FeederWatch, and I think it’s been in existence since 1987 maybe, so it’s 32-ish years. Is that right?
Emma: Yes, that’s right. This will be the 33d year this winter that the program has been going on in its current form.
Margaret: People register. They make a small donation to the Lab I think, and they get program materials, and just tell us what is it just roughly that people do?
Emma: Roughly, it’s a bird-counting program, sort of like the Christmas Bird Count or the Breeding Bird Survey, but, with FeederWatch, people can count their birds all winter long, so it gives a really good look at what’s happening at any given location because there are these repeated observations that people make.
Margaret: So it’s like November to April-ish, right? Is that what it is, November to April?
Emma: Yes, that’s exactly right, and people can count as often as every week, but it’s also very helpful to count even if you can only count a few times all winter. That still gives us a really good idea of what’s happening just to have a couple of repeated counts. And my point: I’m saying this because it’s very flexible. You can really count as much or as little as you like to accommodate your schedule, so I think the program is really nice in that respect.
Margaret: How many people participate in a given year? Is there a rough number?
Emma: Yes, there are these days about 20,000 people in the U.S. and about 3,000 in Canada that participate in the program every year.
Margaret: Bird Studies Canada is the entity that’s the partner in Canada that… to Cornell. Is that right?
Emma: Yes, that’s exactly right. We’ve been working together since 1986 to run this program.
Margaret: Wow, so, over those years, you two entities have accumulated a lot of data. We were just talking about some data that’s been analyzed for part of this other research that was published in the journal “Science.” But you have all this data, and you had already been drawing conclusions about some shifts in populations of birds, and one that I think about—I’m a northern person, I’m in the Hudson Valley-Berkshires area of New York-Massachusetts area, and 30 years ago, when I first used to put out my feeders in the winter, I would have tons of evening grosbeaks [above, in Wikimedia photo], for instance, and I’d have pine siskins galore.
And those are two birds that… Evening grosbeak, I can’t remember the last time I saw one in my area, though there are reports, no, not too far away from me, and pine siskins are an occasional visitor now. Are those the kind of birds that you… or two examples of the kinds of things you’ve noticed differences, or what are some of the highlights (or low lights) of differences that you’ve noticed in your data over the 30 years?
Emma: Yes, those two that you mentioned are really good examples. Within FeederWatch, we have seen the striking decline of evening grosbeaks, and that was something that also they noticed in the science paper, so that’s really confidence-boosting I think when all these different citizen-science efforts lead us to the same conclusions about what’s happening with birds.
Margaret: Any sense of what the factors are? And I know that people counting birds doesn’t give you a conclusion; it’s not the analysis part, but based on other research or whatever, are there any thoughts about that?
Emma: Yes, I think that one of the things that people suspect has a great deal to do with the changes in bird populations are changes in habitat, so a lot of grassland species are in decline, and those are species that live in places that are being converted to agriculture, so the habitat is changing, and agriculture often includes a lot of pesticide use, which can then impact insect populations and, therefore, downstream, impact bird populations.
So habitat use and pesticide use are two things that people suspect are playing a role in these bird declines, but it’s really hard to draw tight conclusions between an effect and a decline, because there is so much happening simultaneously for birds, and different species respond to different things in different ways. So it’s just real tough to make sweeping statements about what is causing the declines.
Margaret: Right, and then the whole climate shifting in the profound ways that it has that we read about every day, and those of us who have been, say, gardening or doing some outdoor activity in a given area over a period of time have noticed. And even just living somewhere, you probably noticed drastic changes.
The ranges of birds also seem to change, don’t they? Like where birds go to, and I guess I’m thinking about… I don’t remember, and maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t remember black vultures being as far north as they are now, when I began birding, I don’t remember them being a common thing. Now, they’re an everyday thing in season in my area with the turkey vultures, for instance; that’s just one that pops into my head, but are birds’ ranges also changing? Is that something that you notice through your data set?
Emma: Yes, they absolutely are changing, and that’s a really good example with the black vulture. Some other species that people might be noticing now that they didn’t notice 10 or 20 years ago are Carolina wrens. [Carolina wren photo above by Dan Pancamo, from Wikimedia.]
Margaret: Oh, yes.
Emma: Yes, these little wrens didn’t use to be in, say, Michigan or New York in the winter, but, now, they’re sticking around all year-round and really exploding in their range, in their population. And they’re very sensitive to cold snaps, so we think the reason they’re able to persist in these more northern latitudes is because winters are becoming more mild in some places, and so we can absolutely see this effect of changes in climate on changes in birds.
It’s interesting because, in some cases, ranges are actually expanding, so some species are doing better than they used to be doing, but then, other species—northern, more cold-latitude birds—are not necessarily doing so well, so there’s definitely a change that’s happening for a lot of birds.
Margaret: I’ll tell, I’m going say in quotes “my” Carolina wren who entertains me much of the day at the moment [laughter], an adorable bird, I’ll tell him or her that we talked about him or her today.
Emma: O.K. good.
Margaret: I have a hermit thrush, too.
Emma: Oh, yes, that’s another good one.
Margaret: Yes, and I don’t know if that’s always been one that stays around in winter or not. It’s seems like maybe not. Or maybe that’s always been the case. I don’t know, but I tend to have them in the winter even now, too.
Emma: Yes, they do tend to stick around in winter, and it’s surprising because we think of thrushes as birds that migrate, and they do a bit, but, hermit thrushes—it can handle a little bit of cold weather.
Margaret: Yes. What about, and people, a lot of people cringe at the thought of this, but there are certain hawks that will hunt at bird feeders and pick off songbirds, and people feel terribly guilty like they’ve caused the death. So what about like, say, Cooper’s hawks? Have they “learned” that feeders are a good source of food, and have they changed their wintering ranges as a result, or is this just… that they’ve always been around in winter? Because I see more of them, too, or I feel like I see more of them? [Young Cooper’s hawk, below, in Margaret’s backyard.]
Emma: You do see more of them. They’ve shown a really big increase in their winter range and their range as a whole over the past couple of decades. Cooper’s hawks are really thriving, and sharp-shinned hawks are thriving maybe not quite to the degree that Cooper hawks are, but we think that it may have to do with them figuring out that backyard bird feeders are a really good source of food, so they’re actually thriving, and I guess people have to decide if they feel… want to feel good or bad about that, but hawks are birds, too, so I feel like in a way it’s cool to have them in your backyard and the whole circle of life happening at your feeders, and I know it can be a little brutal. [Compare Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks on the FeederWatch website.]
Margaret: It is, but it was Pete Dunne, I think, the ornithologist, who said to me in an interview years ago when I said, “Oh, it creeps me out,” and he said, “Margaret, that hawk would have eaten a songbird somewhere else that day.” It was going to eat a songbird. It’s what it eats, so, yes, it’s going to do it in your… in front of you; you witnessed it, but it was going to eat one somewhere. [Laughter.]
Emma: Yes. Exactly.
Margaret: I always keep that in mind. So we’ve been saying FeederWatch and feeder… what’s a “feeder bird,” because what FeederWatch is about is watching birds I think in our backyards, right? It’s not about going out birding, go climb a mountain somewhere in some remote area, is it?
Emma: No. What you’re saying is correct. It’s about watching the birds in our backyard, and, usually, the way people see the most birds in their yard is by putting out some sort of food source. So often, the feeder birds are birds that like seeds, or hummingbirds that like nectar. It’s more those foraging guilds than, for example, insectivorous species that are… They’re a little harder for us to put out a tray of little gnats because those are all going to fly away, so it’s these granivorous species [seed eaters] and nectar- and fruit-eating species that we typically think of as feeder birds, and that’s what folks tend to report the most for Project FeederWatch.
However, I really encourage folks to participate even if they don’t have feeders out because we can still learn a lot about what’s happening with birds even when they aren’t feeders. And we want to—we want to know what’s the difference between a backyard with a seed feeder and a backyard that just has native plantings, or maybe a bird bath and no seed feeders. So I think that backyards that are planted for birds, but not necessarily full of feeders are just as valuable a peek into what’s happening with birds.
Margaret: What’s the right way to feed really if… I mean my garden is planted for habitat, so there are animals eating all kinds of things there all the time. But I have unfrozen water 365 days a year—you know, water I have a de-icer in—that seems to really increase the number of birds that participate and other animals as well that utilize the garden and that I think of as my “feeder birds,” but what’s the right… Are there any rules for a good feeding protocol?
Emma: Yes. I think that a good way to think about it is you want to feed birds the way that you might feed the guests that are coming over to your house, so you’re going to feed them with fresh, healthy food; clean plates; and you’re going to give them a safe environment to come visit. And so that’s what we want to do for birds, too. Provide fresh food, whether it’s seed or fresh nectar that you’ve mixed up. Provide it in clean feeders that have drainage so that the feed doesn’t just sit in a wet pool of water, but instead they can stay dry. And it’s really good to provide habitat either in the form of bushes or brush piles in your yard so that the birds have someplace to perch and hang out before coming to a feeder, and that gives them more cover for evading those Cooper’s hawks that are probably hanging out, too.
Margaret: [Laughter.] Yes. Is sunflower the highest-value food? I mean, if you’re going to feed one thing, is that the best for generally?
Emma: Yes, sunflower is a great seed. Lots of birds like it, and it’s very fatty and oily, so it provides a lot of calories per bite for the birds. Thistle, also called nyjer seed, that’s another really good one for attracting a wide variety of species with just one simple seed type.
Margaret: Yes, the finches seem to really like it.
Emma: Yes. Exactly. [More from Cornell on common feeder birds and what they prefer to eat.]
Margaret: And what about with the counting? What’s the right way to count because I think I read… I mean, I remember some blog posts I think on the Lab of Ornithology website. I feel like there was this anecdote about how the British ornithologists or whatever, researchers, regretted not counting really familiar birds like house sparrows, and that sort of came back to bite them not having that data. And a lot of us are inclined to just, “Oh, I saw an unusual bird,” and we go and we count. We write that down, but we don’t write down the everyday stuff. What’s the right way to count to help you—for us to be good citizen scientists?
Emma: Yes, so that’s a great question, and FeederWatch is really designed to teach people how to count in a way that will be really informative to understanding changes in birds, and so what that right way is, is to count no matter what’s there. So if you look out your window and there aren’t many birds there, that’s still really valuable, because we want to know what’s going on in the environment on the days when there aren’t many birds just as much as we want to know what’s going on in the environment when there are lots of birds. You really can’t have one without the other.
So for people to just choose their count days and count no matter what, and report whatever they see even if it doesn’t feel exciting, that is what ends up leading to really great long-term data sets that are a really good representation of what’s actually happening with the birds.
Margaret: O.K, so don’t… I shouldn’t just put down something I’m really excited about because that doesn’t show the real situation in my backyard on a continuum at all.
Emma: Right, because if you imagine looking at a bunch of counts where you only wrote down when this super-rare bird showed up, someone coming and looking at those counts later would see that that rare bird shows up every time you look, and they might actually… It would seem like that rare bird is actually common. So yes, that’s what we want to be able to tease apart and… by having people just count no matter what is out there and not bias their counts towards rare things. [
Margaret: Good thinking. I want to ask you: Here you are, it’s already well into November when we’re speaking, and so people have been sending in their sightings. And you’re looking at what’s coming in, the pulse of things, and are there—we were just talking about exciting birds—but are there birds you’re, especially you, Emma, that you’re really looking and you’re especially… in the wake of all this research coming out and so forth, that you’re especially looking to see what’s happening with them that are on your radar?
Emma: Yes. One of the groups that I’ve been really interested in lately are hummingbirds, and we have seen that Anna’s hummingbirds, which are a species on the West Coast, are expanding their winter range tremendously. And it seems to be associated with human development, people putting out bird feeders. So I’m also really interested in understanding if, say, ruby-throated hummingbirds are also overwintering a little bit more in the United States instead of flying across the Gulf of Mexico in response to climate change, and in response to people keeping their feeders out longer. So those are some that I’m just really keeping my eyes on are hummingbirds and the interaction between hummingbirds and people.
Margaret: Interesting. What I’ll do with the transcript of this show, Emma, is I’ll give all the links, and there’s other bird counts as you said that people can participate in, and there’s eBird.org that people can join and put down their counts any day, so I’ll give all that information, as well as how to join FeederWatch from now through April. I really appreciate your taking the time today. Thank you so much for visiting the show.
Emma: I appreciate being on it so much, and thank you for running such a good show. It’s really valuable.
Margaret: I’ll tell “my” wren that you said hello. [Laughter.]
(Graphics from Cornell; photo credits as noted.)
more on birds counts, bird declines, and how to help
- Project FeederWatch
- Cornell Lab of O on Facebook, where there are live events and birdcam videos and more
- Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count
- Bird Studies Canada
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology website
- Report on bird decline explained by Cornell
- Report on bird decline covered in “The New York Times”
7 simple actions to support birds, from cornell
CORNELL LAB OF ORNITHOLOGY offers 7 simple steps for helping birds. Read more about each step, with detailed instructions and links for more information, on their website. In brief, the actions are:
1. Make windows safer, day and night
2. Keep cats indoors
3. Reduce lawn by planting native species
4. Avoid pesticides
5. Drink coffee that’s good for birds
6. Protect our planet from plastics
7. Watch birds, share what you see
- Get all the details on each of the 7 steps, on the Cornell website.