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Pat Munts: Become a citizen scientist by counting birds this winter

A red-breasted nuthatch sits on a snowy branch. (File)
A red-breasted nuthatch sits on a snowy branch. (File)

Now that the holiday frenzy is over and we are into the depths of whatever Mother Nature brings us for a winter, it’s a perfect time for winter walks and a little bird watching.

We have dozens of birds that call the area home all through the year. Purple finch, goldfinch, quail, nuthatches, flickers and chickadees to name a few. But every year the mix of visitors to our feeders changes.

If there is a lot of snow in the mountains, we sometimes see birds down here in the lowlands that are more at home in higher elevations. Other years when the weather is mild, a few coastal dwellers venture over the mountains earlier than normal.

While these changes in populations are a curiosity to us, they are a critical key in the puzzle about how songbird populations shift territory and numbers over time as the climate changes. Shifts in bird populations can be an indicator of how the plants they rely on are also changing.

Ornithologists and climate scientists can’t be everywhere recording the changes, however. That is where you come in. As readers of this column, you are everywhere in the Inland Northwest and can easily observe who is coming to and going from your feeders.

Project FeederWatch is a joint American and Canadian project run by the Cornell University Ornithology Laboratory and Bird Studies Canada. Its goal is to enlist the help of people who keep backyard feeders throughout the U.S. and Canada to count the visitors to their feeders each winter.

The scientists then use the information to map changing migration patterns and the bird population strength. In a sense, you become a citizen scientist in the ornithology community. This year, their counting season is Nov. 13 through April 8.

Project FeederWatch doesn’t require a huge time commitment or an existing knowledge of the birds in your area. When you join the program, you receive materials that will help you identify the birds you see and information about how to record and submit your observations to the scientists at the Cornell Lab.

You can take counts as often as once a week on a schedule that fits your life. There are special observation days through the counting season to add to the fun. This is a great project not only for individuals but for school classes, clubs and youth groups. It’s a great way to teach scientific observation skills, natural history and something about a scientific field a lot of kids never hear about.

You can join Project FeederWatch by going to and selecting the American option. If you are in Canada, you need to select the Canadian option. There is a $15 fee to cover materials and support the program.

There aren’t too many people in the Inland Northwest registered, so let’s increase that number. Have fun!

Pat Munts has gardened in Spokane Valley for more than 35 years. She can be reached at pat@inlandnw

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