Project FeederWatch

A nuthatch visiting my feeder©Janet Allen A nuthatch visiting my feeder

Project FeederWatch is a citizen science program sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It's my favorite citizen science program and the one I've participated the longest in. I always look forward to November when FeederWatching starts again!

I started participating in this project in 2000—even before I knew much about identifying birds. I bought a few bird ID books and spent some "quality time" with them. (Of course, this was before such useful apps as Merlin and BirdLog were available…)

After the first season or two, though, it became much easier as I learned what things to watch for when identifying birds. What at first were indistinguishable little brown birds soon became very distinguishable species. Learning to identify our bird visitors has made watching birds in our yard much more enjoyable. And it's always nice to have a scientifically valid reason for spending a bit more time looking out the window at birds!

How we do it

Project FeederWatch starts the second Saturday in November and continues until the beginning of April. We watch just two days a week for whatever time we have. There's no minimum time required; we just note how much time we spent (for us, sometimes less than one hour total, sometimes more).

Female cardinal ©Janet AllenFemale cardinal, obviously distinct from the male, unlike some other species

The important rule we learned is that we count only the maximum number of birds of a given species we see at any one time. This rule guarantees that we never double count an individual bird. Thus, each number represents at least as many birds as actually visited our yard.

This rule is obviously necessary, but frustrating when, for example, we see a female cardinal and later see a male cardinal. Even though we know at least two individual birds visited our yard, we can record only "1" since we didn't see them both at the same time. This rule is understandable since the gender of some species, such as chickadees, can't easily be determined. Without this rule, some species would be overrepresented relative to other species.

PFW datasheetPFW datasheet

Even though most citizen science projects provide datasheets you can download and print out, for some, such as Project FeederWatch, I find it's much easier to create my own Word document. Instead of blank lines to write down the birds I see, I list all the birds I've seen in the past, so all I have to do is write down the number I see.

Another reason it's easier is that I list them in the order in which I enter them online. Since I've done this for a few years, I rarely see a bird that isn't already on my list. If I do see a new species, I just write it in at the bottom and update my document for next year.

Here is my data entry sheet, which you're welcome to use. It's a Word .doc file, so you can modify it to list the species you see. I've included the same page twice since I print them two to a page. It makes the print smaller, of course, but I find it's big enough to read. It uses only half the amount of paper, which saves paper and also makes it less bulky, since I keep all my old data sheets.