Project FeederWatch: A Great Program for Homeschoolers, Teachers and Other Bird Lovers

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Feeder watching teaches students how to identify birds, observe their feeding and social habits, and begin to take simple data. Photo Credit (c) 2011 Kim M. Bennett.

Why Volunteer to Collect Data?

For the past 20 years, my family has participated in many “citizen science” programs. Research projects that use volunteer data collectors are extremely beneficial, for several reasons:

  1. You are collecting real data for a real (BIG) research project, giving the task a real-world purpose;
  2. The “lessons” are already done for you, and the projects usually have a wealth of resources to help you plan other studies;
  3. The set up of the project reinforces important research skills in the volunteer participants;
  4. Because so many people participate, the body of scientific knowledge is greatly expanded;
  5. The small fee you pay to participate (it’s very small) supports further research — a great opportunity to teach kids about responsible giving.

Here are some programs that you can enroll in, to combine your own feeder studies with major studies.

Our Time with Project FeederWatch

My family has participated in Project FeederWatch for 20 years. We have learned so much by spending just a short time watching birds each week (of course, we watched them way more than the observation time, because we enjoyed the project so much!).

During our studies, we learned the following things:

  1. Tufted titmice will fight over leftover cooked broccoli that is left on a feeding table;
  2. The fur from your pet Shetland sheepdog’s doggy brush will disappear if you leave it under your bird feeder in the spring;
  3. Bluebirds will stay all year if you have berry suet (here in CT);
  4. Wild turkeys might run away (at first) when your neighbor’s cat jumps into the group, but the cat will be sorry he tried to eat turkey for dinner;
  5. Cooper’s Hawks will catch their lunch (birds) straight from the bird feeder;
  6. Goldfinches will land on you by the dozens and wait for you to fill the feeder after a snowstorm;
  7. And chickadees will sit nearby and scold you at the same time.
  8. A seed block under the feeder will attract grouse, pheasants and other large birds;
  9. Even birds that don’t eat seeds (hawks, phoebes, owls, e.g.) will be attracted to all the activity when you feed the ones that do;
  10. Once a year, about 300 grackles (with a few blackbirds and cowbirds) will descend on your yard, eat all the seed, then leave.

A great feeding station has several different types of feeders and several different types of food, to attract the greatest variety of feeder birds. Photo credit (c) 2012, Kim M. Bennett

About the Program


Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology

Data Collection Dates:

November through April


North America (United States and Canada)


According to the Project FeederWatch website:

The massive amounts of data collected by FeederWatchers across the continent help scientists understand

  • long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance
  • the timing and extent of winter irruptions of winter finches and other species.
  • expansions or contractions in the winter ranges of feeder birds
  • the kinds of foods and environmental factors that attract birds
  • how disease is spread among birds that visit feeders”



$15 ($12 for Lab Members)

What you get:

Posters, data collection forms and/or a link for online submission, a newsletter and tons of great online tools, articles and other links about this and other birding programs at Cornell.

For more information:

See the Project FeederWatch home page. If you happen to be in the Ithaca, New York Area, please do make it a point to visit Sapsucker Woods, the home of the Cornell birding world. Cornell is my alma mater — it’s worth a visit if you’re in that part of New York.

Some migratory birds, like the bluebirds that we watched all winter, will stay up north during mild winters, if your feeding station has the right assortment of food available. Photo credit (c) 2012, Kim M. Bennett

Keeping it Simple

If you don’t want to jump in with both feet and join Project FeederWatch, you

can still conduct simpler feeder watching studies in your backyard or outside your classroom window.  All you need are a few items:

  • a good field guide (we use

    National Geographic’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America) or a poster of common feeder birds of your area. Click the image at right for ordering information.

  • a pair of binoculars
  • a notebook


Spend about 15 minutes a day watching the birds. Decide how you will collect data. Here are some options:

  • Count the maximum number of birds of a particular species at the feeder at a given time (e.g., if you count three chickadees, mark 3; then, if one flies off and two others fly in, mark 4) – this gives you an idea of the overall number of the birds at your feeder, although you don’t know if it’s the same ones or different ones.
  • Count the number of visits to the feeder, no matter how many or few birds this represents — this gives you an idea of the interest in the food being offered, but doesn’t give you as much of an idea of the number of birds there.
  • Count the individual birds coming to the feeder — this is nearly impossible unless you know your individual birds by sign (unlikely), but would give the most accurate answer to the question, “How many birds are coming to my feeder?”
  • Count the number of different species coming to the feeder — this works nicely when you compare the diversity from week to week, especially as you head into migration times of the year.

See “Feeding Birds: An Experiment (Or Two…)” for a very simple study of feeder birds.


Stay Tuned…

Watch future posts on Simple Science Strategies for more information on other programs at Cornell, including their online Ornithology classes. NestWatch, Project Tanager, and many others. Also look for information on American Robin, a website dedicated to citizen science and the migration habits of the American Robin.

Tell us all about how you use bird feeding to hone your students’ observation skills. Don’t forget to post your link in the Simple Science Strategies September Blog Carnival by 9/28/2012.



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