Birds of a Feather Counted Together at VINS Birds of a Feather Counted Together at VINS

Sunday, February 23, 2014
Quechee — Birds and humans alike last week took a keen interest in the suet and seed-filled feeders on the woodsy grounds of Vermont Institute of Natural Science. The people had a mission: record as many species as possible for the Great Backyard Bird Count. The birds? They were just plain hungry.

Started by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, the annual four-day event helps scientists study bird populations across the globe.

On Sunday and Monday, VINS staff bearing binoculars and bird books encouraged visitors to take part.

It’s an easy way to contribute to science, said Chris Collier, operations director. Participants can spend as little as 15 minutes counting birds, and “you don’t have to have a Ph.D.”

Carolyn Conte and her family cross-country skied on Sunday, but Monday found them inside, peering out through compact binoculars at the snowy landscape.

They love watching birds at their backyard feeder, said Conte, of Lexington, Mass., who had read about the bird count but never taken part. “They may have a convert.”

Last year, bird-watchers from 111 countries contributed to the count, which relies on “citizen scientists.” Although the bulk of the 2014 reports came from the United States, a map on the Great Backyard Bird Count website shows concentrations in Canada, Cuba, Portugal, India and Australia, and across Central America and the United Kingdom.

The results were still rolling in, but by Thursday more than 16 million birds, representing 3,996 species, had been counted.

The information is combined with the results of other citizen science projects, such as the Christmas Bird Count and Project FeederWatch, providing scientists with copious data they could never acquire on their own.

Bird populations are “constantly in flux,” according to the website. “No single scientist or team of scientists could hope to document and understand the complex distribution and movements of so many species in such a short time.”

The bird count can be done anywhere — in wooded areas or big cities, backyards or public parks. But in Quechee, the recent snowfall meant Monday was a good day to focus on feeders.

Heavy snow knocks seeds from the trees, making wild food less accessible, said Linda Conrad, guest services manager. Before and after snowstorms, “birds really get into panic mode,” hitting feeders hard.

Throughout the count, people wandered in and out of the VINS classroom, perusing bird guides and counting the winged visitors through three large windows. A table filled with popcorn, peanut butter and rice cakes offered children a chance to make avian treats.

As visitors scoped out the back woods, Collier recorded their sightings.

Visitors and VINS staff saw 10 species on Sunday and eight species on Monday, including hairy and downy woodpeckers, white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches, American goldfinches, and a raven.

It’s been about four years since VINS started hosting the bird count, Collier said. The samples are too small to draw conclusions about local avian populations, but they do contribute “to the greater whole of science.”

Throughout the day, staff members shared tidbits about the behavior of common birds. When it comes to eating, “chickadees typically grab and go,” while goldfinches stay and graze, Collier told Marty Irvine, of White River Junction.

Most of the people he met over the course of the two days were new to birding, Collier said. But several said the experience would prompt them to pay closer attention to birds in their backyards.

“Now I will enjoy them more because I’ve learned a little bit more about them,” said Irvine, who had traveled to VINS to enroll her 6-year-old son, Rowan, in summer camp and ended up taking part in the count. “I plan to put more food out so they will keep coming out. I feel a little bit more compassion for them.”

By the time they left, she and Rowan had decided to do some bird-watching at home that afternoon and submit their findings to the bird count.

“This will be something we can do outside, instead of building a snow fort again,” Irvine said, laughing. “We’ve been doing that all weekend.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at or 603-727-3210.

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