Christmas Bird Count

We have a window-mounted platform bird feeder at our house that is frequented by a Mourning dove whom we’ve named Larry. He’s a stalwart bird and we can tell him from “Mrs. Larry” because he gives us a stare-down as we walk by the window, whereas Mrs. Larry noisily flaps away, as Mourning doves are prone to do. One grey afternoon, as my son and I (and the cat, too) sat watching the feeder, we counted 9 species of birds making use of the provided safflower seeds (cardinal, chickadee, house finch, titmouse, red- and white-breasted nuthatch, good old Larry, plus a hairy woodpecker on the nearby oak). It seemed so unusually busy that we began to wonder if this phenomena had a significant meaning.

Turns out, not only does the Farmer’s Almanac have a myriad of animal-behavior proverbs (like hawks flying high means a clear sky; hawks fly low, prepare for a blow) but scientific studies now show that birds can sense minute changes in barometric pressure. Birds, unlike mammals, have a middle-ear sensory structure called the Vitali organ – or the paratympanic organ (PTO) – that is believed to use air pressure to aide birds in sensing their flight elevation. Scientists have concluded that the PTO functions as both an altimeter and a barometer and thus, shifts in weather (like dropping air pressure prior to a storm) are signaled in the bird’s brain. We’re guessing if the birds sense fluctuating weather, they grab a quick bite to eat before the storm rolls in. Next time we spot a busy day at Larry’s feeder, you can bet we’ll check the 24-hour weather prediction – and test the bird’s accuracy against the local meteorologist’s.

One more thing we’ll do the next time the feeder is aflutter is jot down and then share our sightings with the folks at the National Audubon Society. Specifically, we’ll be watching the feeder over Winter Break in order to take part in Audubon’s most well-known citizen science project, the Christmas Bird Count (CBC). For nearly 120 years, people have been taking hikes or sitting at window feeders and recording the location and number of birds they spot within a 24-hour period. You, too, can join the “longest running animal census in the world ” by checking the CBC Map for an observation area nearby and finding out who your area data compiler is (yellow and green circles indicate areas open for new participants). Here’s a bit more:

Each count takes place in an established 15-mile wide diameter circle, and is organized by a count compiler. Count volunteers follow specified routes through a designated 15-mile (24-km) diameter circle, counting every bird they see or hear all day. It’s not just a species tally—all birds are counted all day, giving an indication of the total number of birds in the circle that day. If you are a beginning birder, you will be able to join a group that includes at least one experienced birdwatcher.

Most observations are done via group hikes within the 15-mile radius but you can also “contribute right from your kitchen window” if you live within a CBC circle. The best information I’ve found about CBC is listed here but you can also start at the Christmas Bird Count homepage. Or, find out what has been learned from the 70,000+ observers over the past 119 years from this interview with Gary Langham, Audubon’s chief scientist. And, if you see Larry while you’re out counting, tell him I said “hello.”

Did you know…

You might sight a Snowy owl on your trek, particularly since this part of North America sometimes serves as an extended hunting ground for these majestic birds. Find out why there were so many here last winter from this Milwaukee State Journal article or, watch the video below.

Nature Net News Flashback from 2008

Instant Outdoor Expert: Surviving the Cold
Ask a classroom of third graders what animals do in the winter and you’ll inevitably get knowing responses of “hibernate” or “migrate.” Often, the many animals who “tough out” the winter are overlooked. And while hibernation and migration are indeed amazing feats of energy amassment, storage, and use, animals who spend winter withstanding temperature extremes and food scarcity are equally amazing. Masters of adaptation, many mammals, like bats, moles, shrews and opossums, will accumulate brown fat which actually produces heat without muscle movement (shivering). Some mammals, like hares, deer, and weasels, change their coat to include hollow (and in some cases white) hairs which provide a greater insulation value. Others, like squirrels, deer mice, foxes, and weasels, become master cache-makers and keep nourishment stored for dire times.

Birds also accomplish some amazing feats of adaptation in order to survive our blustery winters. Not only are they champion feather fluffers (which provides an insulating layer of air), they also grow up to 50% more feathers from their summer-time plumage. While birds cannot produce brown fat as some mammals do, they can put on an insulation layer of energy-packed white fat – and they are expert shiverers. Near constant shivering actually helps regulate their body temperature to just over 100°F through a process called thermogenesis. And in the cold of night, birds will go into a self-induced state of unconsciousness (torpor), using hypothermia to their advantage, in order to conserve heat and save up to 20% of energy consumption.

Find out more about how birds survive winter from Cornell’s Bird Sleuth.

To Do This Month:

Create a bird friendly yard and contribute to transforming your community into a space where birds can flourish.

Take part in one of the longest running Citizen Science surveys in the world and help to foster a new culture of conservation by participating in the Christmas Bird Count.

Read about the discovery of thirteen new bird species found in Wisconsin during a study done by the Wisconsin Breeding Atlas II and learn how you can be a part of the expedition to discover more.

Download this bird count tally sheet for step-by-step instructions on how to perform your very own bird count from the comfort of your home.

Visit Cave of the Mounds to celebrate the season with sing-a-long tours inside the cave. At each stop along the tour route you will have the opportunity to sing a holiday carol and hear your voices resonate through the cave. Fun for all ages and singing abilities!

Find fun and educational nature-related events on the Nature Net Calendar.

DIY Bird Feeder

Great Bird Count Books

Aldo Leopold Foundation

Events this Month

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For Educators:

Project Feederwatch 

If you would like to take on a similar citizen science project with your students once school is back in session, Project FeederWatch is as easy as 1, 2, 3:

  1. Put up a feeder
  2. Count birds
  3. Enter your data


Project Feederwatch provides an interactive “Common Feeder Birds” webpage, as well as participant maps, trend graphs, and bird count summaries sorted by state. (Think of all the opportunities for math, geography, and social sciences tie-ins.) The website also offers plenty of information on types of feeders, which food to put out, and how to record your observations. If you’re a first-time recorder, a welcome kit including common feeder-bird posters and a calendar to help keep track of your count days will be shipped to your school. Data – which must be collected November 10th through April 5th – is submitted to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada.

Here’s why your student’s data is important:

When thousands of FeederWatchers in communities across North America count birds and send their tallies to the FeederWatch database, the result is a treasure trove of numbers, which FeederWatch scientists analyze to draw a picture of winter bird abundance and distribution.

Find out more and get started at SPECIAL for 2018-19 school year: Nature Net will reimburse your participant fee if you sign up before January 31st. Just email me at to request more information!

PS Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology also offers a full suite of educator resources on their BirdSleuth K-12 website.

For Families:

Become a Citizen Scientist

According to, the importance of citizen science is multi-fold. Not only does it encourage people to be better connected with the world around us (as we were in pre-technology days) but it also helps scientists procure information that would otherwise be too laborious or expensive to gather on their own:

Science relies on observation. As more people examine natural phenomena and record and share information, we gain better understanding of the world. An increasing number of scientific inquiries now depend on contributions from ordinary people to help them answer important questions.

If you and your children would like to get involved in recording nature observations in order to help scientists, there are plenty of opportunities out there. The Wisconsin Citizen-based Monitoring Network has developed a chart of many statewide species you can track throughout the year, including kestrels, owls, turtles, frogs, bats, and birds. Or, you can enter any species you’re interested in recording into the Network’s search page to find out if there’s an associated monitoring program. Several Nature Net member sites appreciate your observation input, including the International Crane Foundation, which hosts an Annual Midwest Crane Count, and the UW Arboretum which tracks bumble bees, the Asian jumping worm, and monarch caterpillars, among other species.

If you want to go a step further, you can become a Wisconsin Volunteer Master Naturalist and dedicate your 40 hours of annual volunteer time to citizen science.

Betsy bylineCopy of Betsy bylineBetsy Parker is an environmental educator who supports all children, families, and classrooms getting their recommended daily allowance of #VitaminN.
Funding for Nature Net and the Nature Net News blog is provided by American Girl Fund for Children.