Annual Backyard Winter Bird Survey tracks changes in NH’s birds

Posted on December 7, 2010

NH Audubon’s annual February survey of birds at your feeder and backyard has been taking place since 1987. Before that it was a survey for just three species – the Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, and Northern Mockingbird to track their northward expansion. Once the survey expanded, biologists have been able to watch the population trends of many other species and track changes in distribution.

Each year about 1,300 observers across the state count the birds coming to their feeders. “In 2009 people reported quiet feeders, but this year feeders have been busier,” said Survey Coordinator and Biologist Rebecca Suomala. However, fall is an unpredictable time to evaluate bird populations at feeders because bird movements are affected by migration, weather and food supplies. The mid-winter survey provides a more stable measure from which to compare years. “The strength of the survey is in long term trends,” says Suomala. “We now have more than 20 years of data and over the long term, fluctuations due to things like weather smooth out so we can see what’s happening to bird populations as a whole.”

The survey results showed the decline in American Crows when West Nile first reached the state, and a drop in House Finch numbers due to an eye disease. Dramatic increases have appeared in other species like American Robins, and most recently Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Winter visitors like redpolls and Pine Siskins show a more regular pattern in response to food supplies to the north – they are numerous in some years and absent in others, often with predictable regularity. This year we’re predicting a return of the Pine Siskins and you can watch to see if we’re right.

Help NH Audubon track these patterns by taking part in the survey. “The more coverage we have, the better,” says Suomala. Remember that reports of a lack of birds are just as valuable as reports of many birds. “If everyone reported only when they have a lot of birds, we wouldn’t be able to see the declines.” The most important thing is to participate each year regardless of how many or how few birds you have. This provides a consistent long-term set of data that shows both the ups and downs.

Note: There are two surveys in February. NH Audubon’s Backyard Winter Bird Survey that takes place in New Hampshire only, and the Great Backyard Bird Count, a newer, nation-wide web-based survey. We encourage you to do both!