• Susan Poirier

Project FeederWatch Engages Citizen Scientists in Thirty-Year Study of Winter Birds

Thousands of birdwatchers across the United States and Canada will again report observations as citizen scientists for Project FeederWatch, set to begin its 31st season November 11, 2017 through April 13, 2018. Winter is an excellent time to observe birds, including familiar year-around residents as well as migrants who travel further south for the colder months. Bare deciduous trees make birds easily visible, and elusive birds may become more assertive, appearing at feeders.

Project FeederWatch volunteers provide data that scientists are using to analyze changes in regional bird populations, movement of species, and new ranges for birds. Compiling three decades of data spanning North America on winter bird activity would not be possible without the many citizen scientists who participate and report their observations.

The project has documented that a large percentage of winter birds are shifting their range northward such as eastern bluebirds, American robins, and northern cardinals. Based upon observations reported by long-term FeederWatchers across geographic regions, scientists have invaluable data for analyzing how species may be adapting to changing weather conditions. Using Project FeederWatch data, scientists have documented that evening grosbeaks are now less common in their range, and they are now able to visually map this decline across North America.

Karine Princé and Benjamin Zuckerberg, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison published a study in 2014 based upon Project FeederWatch data, documenting a “long-term and geographic increase in the prevalence of warm-adapted winter birds across eastern North America” and concluded that the pattern of birds shifting northward “is resulting in the broadscale reshuffling of winter bird communities in North America.”

Volunteers choose two consecutive days (with a five-day break in-between) and as much time as they have available on those two days to observe birds at their backyard feeders. This could be as little as ten or fifteen minutes per day (in each two-day period). The season runs for twenty-one weeks, and volunteers have the option to observe birds for as many two-day periods as they are able to do. Even reporting observations from just one week (one consecutive two-day period) offers valuable research data.

Project FeederWatch has compiled one of the largest databases of winter feeder bird populations in the world. Technology allows scientists to compare shifts in bird populations with data from previous years or with habitat changes. Participants can zoom-in on their own ‘location dot’ on an interactive online map showing all participants’ locations throughout the country, giving a sense of identity and shared connection.

To volunteer in the next Project FeederWatch season beginning November 11, 2017 and for more information:

http://bsc-eoc.org/volunteer/pfw/index.jsp?lang=EN (in Canada); https://feederwatch.org (in USA).

Project FeederWatch is a joint research study of Birds Studies Canada and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In the 2016-17 season, 21,270 volunteer citizen scientists participated.


Citizen-science pioneer, Project FeederWatch soars into 30th year. 1.23.2017. Tompkins Weekly. http://tompkinsweekly.com/news/2017/01/23/citizen-science-pioneer-project-feederwatch-soars-30th-year/

Evening Grosbeak Population Fluctuations. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. https://feederwatch.org/learn/articles/evening-grosbeaks-population-fluctuations/

Greig, Emma. Regional roundup, Trends and highlights from the 2016-17 FeederWatch season. 2017. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. https://feederwatch.org/wpcontent/uploads/2017/09/WinterBirdHighlights2017.pdf

Princé, Karine and Zuckerberg, Benjamin. Climate change in our backyards: the reshuffling of North America’s winter bird communities. October 2014. Global Change Biology. 21:572-585




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