Writer Paul Theroux once wrote, “Winter is a season of recovery and preparation,” and as a gardener in the Northeastern part of the United States, I couldn’t agree more. I have become dependent on the gardening lull that the winter months provide for rest, reflection, and preparation. These cold months offer me a respite from the busy days of summer filled with the demands of weeding, tending, and harvesting. When I’m not perusing seed catalogs, planning for next season’s gardens, or curled up on the couch with a good book, I enjoy one of my other winter hobbies: bird-watching.
As a nature lover, I have always enjoyed watching birds. They seem to have such personalities as they flit from branch to branch singing or chirping, chatting among themselves like gossiping schoolgirls. I have enjoyed experiencing first-hand some of these personalities, one of which I shared in a previous post about the special relationship I developed with a feisty house wren.
Many birds have become incredibly familiar, like reliable friends, they visit the yard frequently and stay throughout the year. Others stopover for briefer periods, migrating here during the winter or summer months. I always look forward to their arrival and am saddened when they leave. I rarely see others, but I know that I’m experiencing something special when I catch a fleeting glimpse of them. For example, this year, I was ecstatic when I spotted a new visitor to our yard, a charming red-breasted nuthatch. It was the first time I had ever seen this species, and it was extraordinary. I have since learned that it is an irruption year for this species and others, and that is why I was able to have this experience. Another noteworthy sighting this year has been that of a leucistic house finch. Leucism is an abnormal plumage condition caused by a genetic mutation that prevents pigment from being properly deposited on a bird’s feathers. His unique white and light pink coloring was a treat to witness.
I love to watch birds year-round, but it is within the unhurried winter months that I can genuinely take the time to enjoy watching these backyard visitors. In early December, I set out the heated birdbath and hang the bird feeders, filling them frequently, even in the harshest weather, to help curb our feathered friends’ voracious appetites. In our neighborhood, bears are frequent visitors in the spring and summer months. When they wake up from their hibernation, they often wander into communities due to dwindling habitat and the ease of finding an effortless meal. Garbage cans and bird feeders too often become their restaurant of choice. To mitigate this, I only place feeders up a few months out of the year, coinciding with the bears’ hibernation.
There are conflicting opinions on whether people should feed wild birds. Those who oppose the practice cite concerns over predation and the increased risk of infectious disease that can spread quickly between species at crowded feeders. However, frequent and thorough cleaning of feeders throughout the season can significantly lessen the risk of illness. The overall consensus among scientists and experts seems to be that feeders can be helpful during migration and temperature extremes in late winter and early spring. During this time, birds need the most energy, but often natural seed sources are depleted. With rampant habitat loss, conservation efforts are vital for over one-third of North America’s bird species.
This winter season, I have not only appreciated watching the many species that have visited my feeders and backyard habitat, but I have also participated in, and plan to be a part of, several citizen science projects. Project FeederWatch is a November-April survey of birds that visit community areas, nature centers, backyards, and other locales in North America. Participants count birds in their chosen location and contribute to a continental data-set of bird abundance and distribution by entering their counts online. Operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Birds Canada, this project is a fun and easy way for bird lovers to help their feathered friends. So far this winter, I have submitted four counts that have incorporated 16 species and over 150 individual birds, and I still have three months to go!
Another project I will be participating in is the Great Backyard Bird Count on February 12th-15th. This project is an inter-organizational effort between the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society, and Birds Canada, allowing birders to participate in a global four-day bird count. The project provides an opportunity for participants to learn about and celebrate birds while contributing data to both scientific and conservation efforts. If you enjoy watching feathered visitors in your backyard, consider participating in one or both of these projects. They are entertaining, and the data collected is essential for better understanding bird populations and distribution. Enjoying nature and helping science? It sounds like a win-win to me! Happy bird-watching and counting!
Photographs (top to bottom): Feature image: A House Finch (left) and an American Goldfinch (right) visit a feeder Photo 1: American Goldfinch Photo 2: Tufted Titmouse Photo 3: Mourning Dove Photo 4: Red-breasted Nuthatch Photo 5: Black-capped Chickadee Photo 6: Blue Jay Photo 7: Downy Woodpecker Photo 8: White-breasted Nuthatch Photo 9: Downy Woodpecker