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Backyard Birds Open a Window on Science Through 25 Years of Project FeederWatch

By Hugh Powell
Download the PDF of the backyard birds poster
Click on the image to download this poster.

If you keep bird feeders, you’re keeping an eye on the natural world—and you can use what you see to help extend the reach of science. More than 15,000 people do that each year as part of Project FeederWatch, which began its 25th year on November 12. The combined data all those FeederWatchers have sent in—on just over 100 million individual birds so far—have made it a resoundingly successful citizen-science project.

The data have helped scientists understand the rhythms of bird irruptions, trace the course of emerging diseases, and get a handle on sudden population changes, like the seemingly unstoppable expansion of the Eurasian Collared-Dove or, more worryingly, the unexplained decline of the magnificent Evening Grosbeak.

Over the years, FeederWatchers have been privy to many memorable sightings, from misguided European finches turning up in North America to the perennial anticipation of the winter’s first siskin, redpoll, crossbill, or nuthatch. FeederWatch takes the memories and highlights at your own feeder and, by combining them with thousands of others, finds extra meaning in them. To date, nearly two dozen peer-reviewed scientific publications have drawn on Project FeederWatch data to explore subjects including seed choice, disease dynamics, predation by cats and hawks, and the emerging effects of climate change.

If you’re already a FeederWatcher, thank you for helping us to understand winter birds better. To the millions of others who keep feeders, we extend a warm invitation to join the project and take part in what has become an annual pleasure for many particpants. Join or find out more at the FeederWatch website.

What’s in the FeederWatch Kit?

Project FeederWatch is a winter-long survey that you can join at any time. Anyone can participate: children, families, teachers and students, retirees, coworkers on lunch breaks, nature centers, and more. Participants count birds at their feeders from November to early April on two consecutive days as often as once a week, then send us their data. Join up and we’ll send you a kit with everything you need:

  • Handbook and instructions with tips for attracting birds to your yard.
  • FeederWatch calendar for planning count days, illustrated with participants’ photos.
  • “Common Feeder Birds” poster with more than 30 illustrations by field-guide artist Larry McQueen, including many of the ones on this page.
  • Access to the FeederWatch forums, where participants share, discuss, and exchange help.

A small annual fee, about the price of half a bag of sunflower seed, provides essential support for staff time, website maintenance, data analysis, and materials. Join or learn more at

Originally published in the Autumn 2011 issue of BirdScope.

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