Behind the Scenes

Birders asked to track winter’s flying visitors

A cardinal might be spotted in the February count.
David Parish
A cardinal might be spotted in the February count.

Local backyard feeders of birds can keep track of their feathered friends and provide data that help scientists track population patterns and tune in to unusual visitors through the Mass Audubon Midwinter Bird Count on Feb. 2 and 3.

Anyone can participate, organizers of the count say, including families, first-timers, and veteran bird enthusiasts.

“We’ve always fed birds and watched them in our backyard,” said Sally Avery, a longtime Cohasset resident and a volunteer at Mass Audubon’s North River Wildlife Sanctuary in Marshfield, where she leads birding walks and gives talks.


The annual mid-winter count provided by bird feeders gives scientists a snapshot of what birds are coming to local feeders, Avery said last week.

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“And it does get people interested in birds. The more interested they become in birds, the more interested they become in the conservation of habitat and in the conditions affecting them,” she said.

The bird feeder survey has taken place for 40 years, said Kim Peters, chief scientist and director of bird conservation for Mass Audubon. Participants share information about the birds in their yards and also learn about what other feeding enthusiasts and veteran bird watchers have observed.

“It’s a great way to get people involved with bird life in their yards in a winter month,” Peters said. “It might look like nature is dead, but there’s a lot going on.”

To take part, keep a list of species you see at your feeder and in your yard on Feb. 2 and 3 and report the greatest number of each species you see at one time either on an online form at,  or by printing the form and mailing it. The form lists many likely species you’ll see, asks you what you feed birds, and lets you to request survey results by e-mail.


Last year, nearly 100 species were reported by the survey’s 850 observers. Scientists are looking at the mid-winter count data for “some of the sharper patterns,” Peters said.

Last year, feeders reported a huge drop in blue jays. Scientists attributed that to “an oddball winter” when weather was warmer, more humid, and oak trees dropped fewer acorns — a big source of winter food for blue jays. Some species are “reading the environment,” she said. “Warmer winters mean some birds such as robins stay in our area all winter.”

The gradual warming trend also leads to winter sightings of birds not seen here in the past, such as Carolina chickadees, a different species from the common Northern black-capped chickadee. People living close to the shore may also catch sight of large wading birds such as the great egret, a large white bird that wades in shallow water for fish, or sea ducks such as the long-tailed duck that breed in Arctic areas in summer.

Over her 15 years of doing the count in Cohasset, Avery said she has seen declines in some species, such as wood thrush and increases in others such as the red-bellied woodpecker and the Carolina wren. 

While bird tallies vary from year to year, analysts are sure to take the local weather into account. The general rule is: The worse the weather, the more birds there are at the feeders.

Robert Knox can be reached at