For the Birds Radio Program: Where were the finches?

Original Air Date: May 10, 1989

Thanks to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s new Project Feeder Watch, Laura Erickson has the answer to the question everyone has been asking her: “Where were the finches all winter?”

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(Recording of a Evening Grosbeak)

This past winter was one of the poorest I can remember for feeder birds—I ended up with only 15 species seen in my feeder through January and February. For months people have been asking me, “Where were the finches?” and I finally have the answer. Thanks to a new and exciting program initiated by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and Canada’s Long Point Bird Observatory, data is being collected about birds throughout the continent. The program, called Project FeederWatch, is a shining example of volunteerism at its best. Participants record the birds at their feeders on special data forms and send them in to Cornell, where the data is analyzed. No tax dollars support the project—it is the volunteers themselves who cough up $9.00 each to pay for postage, the data forms, and newsletters to keep them abreast of the results.

The project has important implications for ornithologists, who have never before had access to continent-wide standardized data about winter bird numbers. And bird numbers have important repercussions on the world of business and agriculture, too—bird seed sales in the United States now top over one billion dollars. So this is a worthwhile project on a practical as well as an esthetic level.

So where were all the finches? Apparently most of them stayed north in the boreal forests of Canada. Bird numbers at feeders in the west were on par with last winter, but birds throughout the eastern United States were down dramatically from earlier years.

According to Cornell, the biggest gap in feeder attendance this year occurred in the winter finches—Evening and Pine Grosbeaks, Purple Finches, and Pine Siskins, birds which are always irregular and unpredictable. Their wandering habits gave them one of their ornithological names—irruptive species. Data from Project Feeder Watch shows that both Evening Grosbeaks and Pine Siskins showed decreases of 75-100% at feeders in the northeastern and southeastern United States from last year’s levels. Did they all die off? Nope—Cornell’s data shows that the decreases were offset by dramatic increases in siskin numbers in the northwestern U.S. and Canada, and of grosbeak numbers in the northern Great Plains. Apparently there was an excellent supply of conifer seeds in Canada, and the birds didn’t need to travel south to find food. The coordinator of Project Feeder Watch, Erica Dunn, wrote that “Last winter there were enough siskins for an average of seven to be counted at every bird feeder in North America throughout the entire winter. But what a difference a year makes. A few people who were entertaining flocks of over 300 siskins every day last winter had none this year.”

Birds give us a great deal–in beauty, in entertainment, and in monitoring the environment so that we have an early warning about dangers to our own health. Project FeederWatch is one of the ways we can learn more about birds in order to give them some help in return. If any listeners are interested in getting involved in this worthwhile project, drop me a line in care of this station.

(Recording of a Evening Grosbeak)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”