Where are All the Birds? NH Audubon Needs Your Help on Statewide Bird Survey!

Posted on January 30, 2017

New Hampshire Audubon’s Backyard Winter Bird Survey celebrates 30 years of tracking the state’s winter birds and you can help. Biologists need assistance from citizens all over the Granite State to get a clear picture of what’s really happening with our winter birds. This year’s survey will take place on Saturday, February 11, and Sunday, February 12.

NOCA by Bob Basile

Northern Cardinal, photo by Bob Basile.

Anyone can participate in the Backyard Winter Bird Survey by counting the birds in their own backyard on the survey weekend and reporting on-line or sending the results on a special reporting form to NH Audubon. To receive a copy of the reporting form and complete instructions, e-mail your name and address to bwbs@nhaudubon.org or call 603-224-9909. Forms are also available at NH Audubon centers in Auburn, Concord and Manchester, and online. Find more information about the survey here.

The first Backyard Winter Bird Survey was conducted in 1987. Since then thirty years of survey data have been collected by thousands of volunteers. With that data, NH Audubon has been able to see many changes and patterns of ups and downs. NH Audubon first initiated a limited survey in 1967 to document the increase of three southern species: Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, and Northern Mockingbird. They expanded it to include all birds in 1987. The original southern species have continued to increase – Northern Cardinal numbers increased from 950 in 1987 to 2,152 in 2016. Several other “southern” species have followed in the footsteps of those original three. “We watched the Red-bellied Woodpecker expand its range northwards – there were none reported in 1987, the first report of a single sighting came in 1991, and by 2016 there were 522 on the Survey!” said Senior Biologist Pam Hunt. Why the increases? There is no definitive answer, but most likely some combination of climate change, suburbanization and bird feeders account for the increases.

Conversely, Evening Grosbeak numbers have dropped from 6,124 in 1987 to 35 in 2016. Some remember when they used to descend on feeders in a group and empty the sunflower seed in a few minutes. What happened? The answer is more complex than you might expect. “Evening Grosbeaks never used to even be in New Hampshire until the mid-1900s and it looks like their increase may be linked to the spruce budworm,” according to Dr. Hunt. Outbreaks of these caterpillars across the boreal forest may have fueled Evening Grosbeak population changes. “With a budworm outbreak in Canada, they may be on the increase again and the Survey will help us see what’s going on.”

Then there are the species that regularly appear in large numbers during the winter. The survey clearly shows the regular patterns of these irruptions. Common Redpolls irrupt every other year with almost clockwork regularity, while American Goldfinch have a cycle of peaks every 2-3 years. This year Dr. Hunt is predicting a redpoll invasion this winter, although there are no signs of it yet.

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,” says Suomala. 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.

All New Hampshire residents are encouraged to take part. Results from past years are on the web site. For more information about the Backyard Winter Bird Survey, please call NH Audubon at 224-9909 or visit the webpage.