Project Feederwatch

Sunday, November 1, 2009
Now that the clocks have been turned back an hour for Daylight Savings Time, night will come an hour earlier this evening. Although the growing darkness has been notable since September, there’s nothing more shocking than the sudden loss of afternoon daylight that comes with the time change. In truth, days begin to grow again in a mere month and a half, but even after crossing the winter solstice bump, there’s still a lot of darkness as the days slowly lengthen over the remainder of the winter.

But Minnesotans are well prepared for darkness. We string up Christmas lights. We wallow in our dark sarcasm. We go for moonlight snowshoe treks. Through frost patterned windows, we watch the natural happenings outside.

Even when all is frozen and dark, if you take the time to observe it, the natural world is humming with activity. Nothing demonstrates this activity better than one of my father’s favorite winter pastimes, a nationwide birding program sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology called Project Feeder Watch. The project involves setting aside two days every two weeks between mid-November through April to record the bird activity at your backyard feeder, then turning in the data to the lab. When my parents were homeschooling my brother and I, they were always looking for science projects for us to participate in and my father’s beloved Project FeederWatch was one such project. At the time, I found counting chickadees for “science” inane, but as with many things that I once ridiculed my parents for, as time passes I’ve begun to see the beauty of it.

For the last couple weeks at work, we’ve been filling the large cast-iron skillets on the porch railing with fish sticks for the jays. The feeders are filled with sunflower seeds and there’s a ball of suet hanging for the woodpeckers. Last Wednesday, during the mid-afternoon lull, the cook and I stared out the back window, watching the interactions between the greedy squirrel and jays, the polite chickadees, and the somewhat impaired woodpecker. It was great fun; so much so that later we both mentioned the activity to our significant others at separate times.

This morning, as the pine marten stopped scampering about the hillside beside the west wall of the Shack and peered into the kitchen to watch me make toast, I was once again reminded of the joy that comes from observing the natural world, especially in the winter months. Instead of losing ourselves in the darkness and cold, we become involved in an intricately webbed world that exists far beyond our immediate interactions with it. As we curse cars that won’t start in the bitter cold of February, baby grey jays are hatching. Even when we’re in no mood to admit it, there’s always something amazing going on outside.

Perhaps it’s time to set up feeders outside the Shack. The window beside my computer offers prime bird watching. Now to sign up for Project FeederWatch . . .

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