As the seasons change, so does the world around us. Trees change color, weather patterns shift, and animals may move to warmer climates for the winter.

Over 100 species of birds spend their winters in North America. As we continue to celebrate 2018 as National Geographic’s “Year of the Bird,” we want to share how you can help increase our understanding of birds by feeding and counting birds in your own backyard over the winter.

Project FeederWatch is a bird survey run cooperatively by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, running from November to April each year. It started in 1976 with 500 participants, and today has grown to over 20,000 participants across the USA and Canada. Participants receive a Project FeederWatch kit that instructs them on how to place bird feeders in their yards and how to identify and count the birds they see utilizing these food sources. They enter this data on the Project FeederWatch website. The data is then utilized for important research on the changes in populations of bird species, how and what kinds of habitats birds use in winter, and how the winter ranges of birds change over time.

Put simply, the data collected by Project FeederWatch is a crucial snapshot of wintering birds in the USA and Canada that scientists cannot obtain any other way. Everyday people who enjoy feeding birds in their backyards are the key to why Project FeederWatch works.

It’s important to note that no scientific training or prior knowledge of birds is necessary to help Project FeederWatch. There’s also no rigorous commitment schedule you have to stick to for your bird counts. Your Project FeederWatch kit will contain information on how to identify the most common birds you’re likely to see at your feeder, or you can find an app such as Merlin Bird ID, Audubon Bird Guide, or eBird to help you.

Your level of commitment to bird counts is completely up to you. You can count birds every day, once a week, once a month, or only once during the survey. Any data you collect and enter into Project FeederWatch is valuable to scientists. Participating in Project FeederWatch is a great outdoor nature activity for families, school groups, or any group to do together. It brings us closer to nature and helps us make a difference for wildlife in the process.

If you decide to participate in Project FeederWatch, how do you know what feeders and what kind of food to use? There are dozens of different types of bird feeders and bird food available to choose from. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to feeders and food. Birds come in a wondrous variety, so no matter what you choose, there will be birds that are willing and eager to use your feeder. Here are a few things to keep in mind for whatever feeder you choose:

Your seed feeder will need to be cleaned once every two weeks to keep the birds utilizing your feeder healthy. Wash your feeder in hot water with soap, rinse thoroughly, soak in a dilute bleach solution for 10 minutes, rinse thoroughly, and then let it dry completely before refilling.

If you are feeding nectar, suet, or fresh fruit, your feeder will need to be cleaned every time you fill it since these foods are more perishable than seeds.

Utilizing a variety of feeders and foods will ensure you have a variety of birds utilizing your feeders. If you are interested in attracting only certain birds, you can focus only on the feeders and foods that these birds utilize.

If a bird of prey is visiting your feeder to prey on birds, you can stop filling the feeder for a few days. With no birds visiting the feeder, the hawk will move on. Don’t worry too much about the birds you feed going hungry. Birds look for food in a variety of places every day; your feeder is probably just one stop on their daily travels.

We hope you will continue to celebrate the Year of the Bird with us here at the zoo by doing something for our feathered friends. Getting closer to the birds in our own backyards is a fun and easy way to experience nature and help science in the process. If you’re already feeding birds or would like to give it a try, check out Project FeederWatch and see how you can be a part of the citizen science community.


Sarah Colman is general curator at Lee Richardson Zoo.