time to feed–and count–the birds: project feederwatch, with cornell’s emma greig

A FLOCK OF ROBINS visited my garden recently for a three-day-long field day. By the time they decamped, I was down about 40 mature winterberry holly shrubs worth of fruit, but we had fun together while the frenzy lasted. I love feeding birds with help from the garden plants or with supplemental birdseed (as I wrote about recently in my column in “The New York Times,” too). And I love keeping records of who visits when.

The annual winter-long citizen-science event called Project FeederWatch, from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is just getting under way, as it does each year at this time. So what better time to talk about the best practices of what to feed to whom, and also what all the data is telling scientists and can tell you, too.

I chatted with Dr. Emma Greig, who leads FeederWatch, which has more than 30 years of history and more than 20,000 participants in North America, whose observations put Northern flickers in the top-25 observed birds list in the Northeast last season, for the first time in project history. (Above, flicker photo from Macaulay Library copyright Warren Lynn.)

Read along as you listen to the November 16, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

Plus: I’ll buy memberships to this year’s Project FeederWatch for two lucky readers–enter the giveaway in the comments box at the bottom of the transcript.

Emma Greig Project FeederWatchfeeding, and counting, birds, with emma greig



Margaret Roach: Welcome back to the program, Emma, and happy FeederWatch season. I bet you’re glad it’s back again.

Emma Greig: Hi, I am glad. Thank you so much for having me and for spreading the word about FeederWatch.

Margaret: Yeah. I really need my bird companions this year. And I’m, as I’ve told you before, when we’ve spoken, I’m in an area where we have black bear, so I can’t feed except once they take a nap. [Laughter.] So I can’t wait.

Emma: That’s right.

Margaret: So just before we get started, I renewed my FeederWatch membership the other day. And I wanted to say that with the transcript, we’ll have a giveaway; we’ll draw the names of a couple of random commenters, and I’m going to buy a couple of extra memberships for people. So people should go over and participate and join in—or buy a membership themselves.

And also to say that you and a colleague are giving a free webinar about feeding birds at noon Eastern time on November 19th I think, is that right?

Emma: That is right. So if you haven’t heard enough by the end of this show, you can tune in again, and Holly Faulkner and I will be chatting about FeederWatch and feeding birds. So hopefully it’ll be a lot of fun.

Margaret: And I think you take Q&A as well?

Emma: We do.

Margaret: So, that’ll be good. So if people have questions after this, then can certainly join for that.

So yeah, birds: watching them, feeding them, all on the rise this year. So I suspect you had an uptick in participation. Did you this year with FeederWatch? When I say “this year,” I mean last fall through late this winter.

Emma: Yeah. There were more people than ever watching their feeders. And normally FeederWatch is a program that runs from November through early April. But if you remember this past spring, we were all stuck at home a lot more than usual. So we went ahead and extended the FeederWatch season until the end of April.

And so many people wrote to us saying thank you for extending the season. And they submitted so many more checklists. So I think that with all of us spending a lot more time at home, people are really starting to appreciate even more the birds that are around their homes.

Margaret: Now, none of the birds sent thank you notes to you? [Laughter.]

Emma: Just the FeederWatchers.

Margaret: And the numbers. The number of Americans who are birdwatchers I think, I don’t know … I think the last ones I read were 2016, numbers were 45 million birdwatchers, and I don’t know, $1.8 billion spent on equipment. And I can’t remember how much on birdseed. But it was more than that even I think, wasn’t it? It’s like $4 billion or something.

Emma: Yeah, exactly. It’s billions of dollars spent on birdseed and gardening supplies for birds. So it’s really a very popular pastime, but a really wonderful one, too, because what’s better than connecting with the nature that’s right out your window?

Margaret: Right. And so you’re extending again this year, this season?

Emma: Well, we may. We haven’t fully decided yet, but I see no reason why we couldn’t keep it open through the end of April. But I don’t know for sure yet, don’t know for sure.

Margaret: O.K. All right. So I love looking at sort of that, “me, too, how do I compare to what other people are seeing?” That sense of community that it can provide when I look at the data. And you have this wonderful website, and I’m going to give lots of links to that. We’ll talk about some of the aspects. I love looking at … I always look first and you just sent out the winter news, sort of the postseason newsletter. And it had the top 25 bird highlights. And I thought maybe we could start there, some of the top 25 birds.

For instance, I’m in the Northeast, Cornell’s in the Northeast. Maybe we start there. Some highlights and then Southeast and whatever, a couple of things that were interesting to you that were in the data.

Emma: Yeah, yeah. Every year we summarize all of the data from the past year and write … I guess you would call it a newsletter, called Winter Bird Highlights. And we do what’s called a regional roundup. And so in that, we sort of pick out some cool trends that show up in the data. And so in the Northeast region this past year, one of the things that I noticed as I was looking through the data, was that Northern flickers are becoming a little bit more abundant in the Northeast than in the Southeast. So it was a little bit of a shift in the range of these flickers. So that’s one thing that just popped up from looking at the trend graph that we have on the website and that I then look at to write this report.

So who knows exactly why that’s happening. It could be changes in habitat, changes in the climate. This is just one species. And there are lots to look at online and really can make your own discoveries.

Margaret: Yeah. The Eastern bluebirds … And so flickers made the top 25 in the Northeast for the first time I think in the 30-something years. Eastern bluebirds didn’t make the top 25, but I think you’re noting an uptick in them in some areas, too, is that right?

Emma: In the Southeast, Eastern bluebirds are continuing to increase. They’re becoming more and more abundant in backyards. And they’re a warm-adapted species. So it makes sense that as our winters become more mild in the eastern part of the continent, these warm-adapted species become more common.

So it’s true for Eastern bluebirds. It’s true for species like chipping sparrows. And you might notice also Carolina wrens coming into your backyard more than they used to. Those are a species that are really on the rise in the eastern part of the continent.

Margaret: [Laughter.] I’m laughing. I can’t … If anyone says Carolina wren, I start to laugh because I have only had the experience, as I’ve said to you before when we’ve talked, the last couple of years that they’ve sort of adopted me—as I like to think of it being very self-centered and it’s all about me. So a lineage has now decided to live here right beside the house and has tried to nest in everything from watering cans to a shelf in the garage to whatever.

And they’re so vocal and have so many different vocalizations and it’s fascinating. And there’s a whole thing that goes on; they’re chatty year-round really. They’re not quiet in the winter, like many birds are much quieter in the winter. [Carolina wren photo above by Dan Pancamo, from Wikimedia.]

Emma: Yeah. Carolina wrens are just noisy little creatures. It’s true. You’re making some good observations there.

Margaret: Yeah. So in the Southeast, I saw that the Northern cardinal has been the top bird every year?

Emma: I was surprised by that, too. I went back and looked at all of the historical top-25’s from FeederWatch. Can you believe that bird is so steadily Number 1? They are just quite abundant, and people notice them, too. How could you not notice a Northern cardinal? They’re such striking birds. I was surprised.

Margaret: Yeah. As I think in some areas people call them redbirds, yeah?

Emma: Yeah.

Margaret: Their nickname.

Emma: Certainly are.

Margaret: Yeah. You mentioned a minute ago about maps, and the maps seem to be getting … Maybe I’m just digging deeper every year myself as a consumer, maybe it was all always there, but they seem more robust and more exciting and sort of interactive and sophisticated, the way you’re showcasing the data.

So for instance, you said about the Carolina wrens—and from 1990 to this year, I can kind of look at the map and slide this little dial or button across the bottom from year, to year, to year, and just watch the map evolve and see how many FeederWatchers saw them in each region in every year along the way, and the growth and so forth. It’s really fascinating. [Below, a screenshot of the 2020 sightings.]

And it kind of validates for FeederWatchers… It’s like, think about what you’ve seen and how you think it’s changed at your own house. And then go look and play with these maps, because it’s very validating. At least that was my experience.

Emma: Yes, exactly. The things that are happening in your own backyard, may be a reflection of what is happening on a continental level.

Margaret: Right.

Emma: Now, also the things that are happening in your own backyard may have to do with what your neighbor is doing. [Laughter.] So there are local influences and very broad regional influences that are happening at the same time. But it’s really cool to think about what those factors are, and think about how your birds match them.

Margaret: Right. So “feeder bird,” FeederWatch. We call them feeder birds. And so what is a feeder bird, really? Is it about these are birds that can hang on a feeder, or these are birds that eat certain things like seed that we put out? What’s a feeder bird?

And I’ve been watching birds at feeders for a long time. And I realize that in the process, I’ve probably been learning a lot about their physiology and their behaviors, although maybe not consciously. Like some hang upside down and some can go on a perch, and some can only hang on this sort of mesh things and can’t grasp a perch. And can we talk a little bit about that? About the different types of birds who are “feeder birds?”

Emma: Yeah. Well, I think feeder bird is sort of in a way almost kind of whatever happens to come to your feeders is a feeder bird. [Laughter.] So you can sort of use it how you like, but it’s interesting what you’re saying about learning about physiology and behavior. And it’s true, we are.

So for example, a downy woodpecker, well, you might consider that a feeder bird because downy woodpeckers will come to suet feeders or tube feeders with sunflower seed. They might even come to a tray feeder and grab a few seeds. But so that’s a woodpecker.

Well, a yellow-bellied sapsucker, that’s a bird that’s probably never going to come to a bird feeder. Maybe it will come and nibble a little bit of suet, but sapsuckers, even though they’re related to downy woodpeckers and hairy woodpeckers, they don’t come to feeders. So here, you’ve got one thing that’s a feeder bird. And one thing that’s not, even though they’re kind of relative to one another.

So just to say that you’re learning about what kind of food preferences birds have, and how they like to take their food. Another cool thing that you can observe is the difference between species that like to just sit and eat for a long time. For example, a mourning dove might just come and sit at your tray feeder and peck seed, hours on end. Whereas, a little nuthatch will come and take one seed and fly away because it’s going to go eat it somewhere else. Or maybe it’s going to save it for later and cache it, not even eat it.

So these are some really significant differences in the foraging behavior of different species that you can notice by how they interact with the food that you provide.

Margaret: Right. And if that sunflower is still in the shell—versus hulled like chips or hearts or whatever they call them that you might buy, that I like to feed—the eating behavior also changes a little bit because it can be work to get it out of the shell. Do you know what I mean?

It’s like sometimes you see certain birds sort of almost looking like they’re gobbling down seed after seed after seed with the ones outside the shell already that have been hulled. But not with the ones in the shell. They have to go take them and crack them open somewhere. And they don’t want to be out in that exposed place. Or at least that’s my inference. It may be incorrect. They don’t want to be out in that exposed place while they’re cracking open each individual seed. They go somewhere else.

Emma: Yeah, exactly. And sometimes you can see where a little chickadee will go with its sunflower seed, and then you can watch them just hammering away at the thing, trying to get it open. So there’s all kinds of cool behaviors you can watch just from your home.

Margaret: Yeah.  And how, with the caching that you spoke about, it cracks me up. The titmice so forth, they’ll find a place where there’s a piece of window trim or something, or a piece of siding where there’s the tiniest little crack, and they’ll just go back and forth and back and forth and stick the seeds under there. [Laughter.]

Emma: Yeah, they love to do that. And I really enjoy watching blue jays, because sometimes you’ll see them take a big peanut or something and fly somewhere, and they’ll often bury their caches in the ground. Blue jays, but you could watch this in scrub jays as well, or Steller’s jays if you’re in the West. They’ll bury their food item and then you’ll see them sometimes take little bits of vegetation and cover up the little seed that they’ve hidden. So they’re very meticulous about it, or they can be. And I just think it’s so neat to watch.

Margaret: Yeah. So maybe we need to not just look out the window, maybe we need to go and follow a few of these guys around the yard and see what the heck’s going on.

Emma: [Laughter.] Yeah. Or at least follow with your binoculars.

Margaret: Yeah, yeah. So, food stuff, you just said peanuts and there are the foodstuffs and feeders and different foods appeal to different birds and different feeder types sort of work best for certain types of birds and so forth.

And I love this part of the FeederWatch site that’s called I think, Common Feeder Birds. And it’s, I think 100 kinds of birds. And then you can kind of cross-reference, not just for your region and the time of year, but the type of feeder that suits them and the type of food that suits them. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Because I think that’s just so helpful to people who are interested in feeding effectively.

Emma: Yeah. That is a tool that we created, oh, I don’t know, I would say seven or eight years ago. And we just love it so much because what it really is meant to do is give people an idea of given whatever their circumstances are, place, the types of feeders they have, what species are they likely to see? And so it helped narrow down what can feel overwhelming if you want to identify birds, and you get a field guide. Well, there are hundreds of birds in there, but there aren’t actually hundreds of different species that you’re likely to see in your backyard. So I love the tool for that reason. It just makes it all a little more understandable.

And you can use it in the opposite direction, too. So let’s say you really want to attract red-breasted nuthatches to your bird feeder. Well, if you click on a red-breasted nuthatch picture in this tool, it will tell you where you have to live in order to see one and what kinds of seeds, foods and feeders to provide that they really like. So you can use it both ways. [Above, a screenshot of a result after searching for Northeast birds favoring nyjer seed at all kinds of feeders.]

Margaret: Right. And it cracks me up, if you click on blue jay, and then you look for the food types, there’s a long list. [Laughter.]

Emma: Yeah. Well you get to learn what issues are generalists and they’re not picky.

Margaret: Generalist, it’s a polite word for blue jays.

Emma: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Margaret: And then, and then if you go to certain other birds, even just a goldfinch, another familiar bird where I am, then the number of seed or food types that it will prefer or utilize is so much smaller. So thinking about that, and thinking about who you can attract, and like you said, matching it, working in reverse.

And if you filter… If you start with the seeds and you filter for certain types of seeds, like what is it? Sorghum seeds, or is it called M-I-L-O, milo, milo? How do you even say it?

Emma: Milo, yeah. Milo.

Margaret: Yeah, it’s like a few number of birds utilize that versus a few more use millet, but the most use sunflower, I think. And that’s really interesting to see, I don’t know where other ones fit in, but it’s interesting to see that, too, to see where you’re going to get the bang for your buck, so to speak.

Emma: Yeah. That’s a really good use of it. Trying to figure out what seeds will please the most customers so that you can attract the most diversity to your yard with the least amount of work.

Margaret: Right. And then the different types of feeders. You can also sort by that, which is fun, too. I don’t have any … And I should say you have these wonderful feeder cams going—you have one at Cornell, of course.

Sometimes this year I’ll confess when it’s been really stressful, I’ll just link to or plug in… I’ll just turn on the feeder cam, just watch it on my browser and just sit and watch the birds coming to the feeders there, or in one of your other feeder cams.

And you have these big tray feeders, these big platform feeders [below, from the Cornell Lab feeder cam], and I don’t have any of those. Those look really good. Like that’s a good idea.

Emma: Yeah. Those are great ways to do it. The way my father always does tray feeders is when he has stumps from trees that have been chopped down for this or that reason, he’ll just sprinkle seed on the top of the stump. So then that’s it. And then you have all kinds of stuff coming to have a little nibble on that. So you can be creative with how you do your platform or tray feeder.

Margaret: Right. And we should probably say that we should make an effort to provide water, yes? Because that’s a really important thing, especially in the cold-winter zones.

Emma: Absolutely. Providing water can be a great way to attract birds. Even if you don’t want to put out a feeder or maybe you can’t because as you say, you’ve got bears in the area. Well, you can’t have a feeder out, but you could still … Well, I should ask you, can you still put out a tray of water? [Laughter.] Hopefully that’s O.K. Maybe not.

Margaret: Yes. Yes, they don’t seem to be … Yeah. In the summer they sit in my in-ground water gardens like it’s a spa, but …

Emma: O.K. Well, there you go.

Margaret: Whatever. [Laughter.] But in the winter, no, I haven’t. Obviously in the winter they’re normally resting.

So other trends and so forth, other types of birds. I think you’ve written papers, at least one paper that I read, about a particular western species of hummingbird and some of the changes you’ve observed, like the Anna’s hummingbird, I believe? Can you talk a little bit about that? Because that’s not what I think of as a winter feeder bird—obviously hummingbirds we don’t have in the Northeast in the winter. [Photo below from Wikipedia, by Robert McMorran.]

Emma: Right. I think that is part of why I was so enchanted by this little hummingbird in the West that is not really migratory. Anna’s hummingbirds just stay where they want to be all year. And they have been spending their winters and moving more and more further north. So now, even if you’re in British Columbia or even Alaska, you might have an Anna’s hummingbird at your birdfeeder when there is snow on the ground and ice on the branches. It’s just amazing to me that these birds can persist in those cold temperatures.

And so what it tells us is that they’re not necessarily limited by temperature, they’re limited by food availability.

Well, the amazing thing that became evident from looking at FeederWatch data, thanks to everyone who was reporting not only the hummingbirds that they saw at their yard, but also whether or not they provided a hummingbird feeder, we could see that over time in the Pacific Northwest, not only have Anna’s hummingbirds expanded their winter range, but people have started to provide more and more hummingbird feeders over time.

So then you have to ask, well, what came first, the hummingbird or the hummingbird feeder? And I don’t really know the answer to that, but it’s amazing to me the interplay between what we’re doing in our backyard and what the birds are doing. There’s definitely a connection between those two things.

Margaret: This is kind of an interesting year in many ways, globally for the human race, etc., but also for those of us who are sort of in the North, it’s I think going to be what’s called an irruption year. And it’s possible that some of us will be seeing some visitors from the North, the so-called winter finches that we don’t normally see. Can we just quickly tell people what that is? And I’ll give a link to where people can find the Winter Finch Forecast as well.

Emma: Oh, that’d be great. Yeah. Yes, these irruptive years are referring to a behavior where some species of birds will leave their northern boreal winter habitat and come south. And they tend to accumulate around bird feeders when they do this. And so what has happened is, there’s a lack of their natural foods, and so they move to other places to find food. We benefit from their … They’re basically having a tough time, so then we get to see them all.

And so things like redpolls, pine siskins, evening grosbeaks are showing up in people’s yards in more southern locations this year, more than they have for a long time. And we’re already getting reports of these birds, even though FeederWatch hasn’t even begun yet. [Above, redpolls and pine grosbeaks, some fo the birds referred to as “winter finches,” at a Cornell feeder cam recently in Ontario.]

Margaret: Yes.

Emma: So, this is going to be a big year for these irruptive finches and grosbeaks.

Margaret: So be on the lookout and report it to Project FeederWatch, and we’re going to give all the links on how to join.

And I want to remind people about the webinar you’re doing with a colleague on the 19th of November at noontime Eastern, that free webinar, for people who want to know more and ask questions. So Emma, I’m excited. I think more than any other year, I’m excited. I think I need the companionship. [Laughter.]

Emma: Yeah. I think we all do this year. Yeah.

Margaret: Well, thank you for making time. I know you’re busy and I appreciate your making time to kick this off with us. So thank you so much.

Emma: Oh, well thank you. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

more from feederwatch

enter to win a feederwatch membership

PROJECT FEEDERWATCH from Cornell Lab of Ornithology began its latest season Nov. 14, 2020, and runs into April. I’ll buy two memberships for lucky readers (or if you win and already have one, and want to give it to a friend–that’s fine, too). All you have to do to enter is tell us in the comments box below:

Who are you especially hoping to see at your feeders this winter? (I hear there are evening grosbeaks, top left, in my area already this fall and hope to see them.)

No answer or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but an answer’s even better. I’ll pick two winners after entries close on Monday night November 23, 2020. Good luck to all.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the November 16, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Elisa Canning says:

    I am hoping to see some of the smaller bird, Junco, Pine siskin. I get tufted titmouse, American goldinch (but not lately) , ground feeders the Mourning doves and the unusually large Bluejays who have the feeder pole rocking as they eat!

  2. Amy Chace says:

    I would love to join Project Feeder Watch again as I’ve done it in the past. Retired now and on a tight budget due to health issues. There are 2 families of cardinals that stay local and I love seeing them introduce their fledglings to my backyard. Even though I keep track of all bird visits, these beautiful birds are my favorites. Their brilliant red against the white snow makes me happy!

  3. Jane says:

    In Vancouver, Canada, we are seeing unusual birds at our feeders and some pople are specualting it’s due to the birds moving away from the large wildfire areas.

  4. Jan Johnston says:

    Love getting your emailed show in transcript form and have learned so much.
    I hope to see some Rose Breasted Grosbeaks, more of the regulars, chick-a-dees, house finch, gold finch, cardinals, juncos and of course the downy and hairy woodpeckers.

  5. Suzanne Figliola says:

    I’m hoping for cedar waxwings! They usually visit a mature American Holly in the center of my driveway and wipe it clean of berries. They’re beautiful and entertaining and save me some driveway blowing. They didn’t visit last winter, so keeping my fingers crossed.

  6. Jane says:

    I would love to see another Rose Breasted Grosbeak ….. however, I am very partial to all the REDS who visit and welcome them all. Thanks, Margaret for the article and directing us yo this worthwhile endeavor.

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