Backyard Survey Tracks Ups And Downs of N.H.'s Winter Birds

Feb 9, 2017

Northern Cardinal
Credit Courtesy/NH Audubon

  There’s a different kind of census happening in New Hampshire this weekend.

Bird enthusiasts across the state will be taking part in the Backyard Winter Bird Survey this coming Saturday and Sunday.

The event is organized each year by the New Hampshire Audubon as a way to keep track of what’s happening with our state’s winter birds.

Becky Suomala is survey coordinator for New Hampshire Audubon. She talked to NHPR’s Morning Edition about the survey.

Can you explain how this survey works and why it’s important?

This is our annual Backyard Winter Bird Survey and it gives us a chance to get a snapshot and a look at what’s happening with our wintering birds. Often times, these are birds that are here year-round. And we’re celebrating 30 years of data, which means we can look at long-term population trends. That’s the real value of a survey like this.

So you can see in different parts of the state which birds are doing well in the winter population, but it’s also about the birds you don’t see, right?

Right, and we’re always trying to encourage people to report your birds every year, whether you have a lot or just a few because that allows us to see the ups and the downs.

And that’s what you want to look at? Those long-term trends?

We do. We want to look at increases, and we want to be able to spot declines in birds.

The New Hampshire Audubon has been organizing this survey since 1987. What kinds of trends have you seen?

Some of the more interesting trends that we’ve seen have been increases in species that we used to think of as southern species. Most people know cardinals, northern cardinals. They’re beautiful red birds. They never used to be in New Hampshire. And in fact, New Hampshire Audubon started a really early survey in 1967 for northern cardinals, tufted titmice, and northern mockingbirds. Those were three southern species that were moving north. And as the Backyard Winter Bird Survey has gone on, we’ve seen them expand throughout the state, and we’ve seen other southern arrivals come, as well.

What do you attribute that to?

We think it’s probably a combination of climate change with milder winters, some urbanization, because these are birds that do well in your suburban neighborhoods, and bird feeders. Bird feeding has definitely increased over the years.

I see a lot more people with backyard and even front yard bird feeders. I know we have a cardinal pair that’s been in our yard all winter. Do you know how many people are feeding compared to 30 years ago?

There are surveys which have shown the numbers of people feeding birds has increased. And the number of people interested in birds and bird watching has skyrocketed, and is still growing and increasing.

How has that affected your data?

It’s affected the data in that the more people we have reporting on the survey, the better picture we have for New Hampshire. This is a statewide survey, so we obviously want reports from throughout the state. So the more people we have feeding birds and interested in watching birds, the more people we have reporting, and that helps our data.

Who typically takes part in your survey?

It’s a wide variety of people who do the survey. There are some classrooms that do the survey with their kids. They do a unit beforehand to study the birds, and then they go home and do the survey on the weekend. There’s a lot of flexibility with it. But by and large, the folks doing it are those who have feeders in their backyard.

What should people do to get started?

The biggest thing is for people to contact us or go on our website to get the reporting form so you know what it is you need to keep track of during the survey weekend. And what we want people to do is essentially count the most number of any species coming to their feeder at one time. So if you have nine blue jays at nine in the morning and ten blue jays at 11 o’clock, your count is ten. You don’t want to add them together. So you count the maximum number and just make sure you can identify the species. If you can’t identify it, don’t report it.

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