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Counting Birds... Not as Simple as 1-2-3

by Carl Reader

photos Carl Reader

Three questions were posted at the website for the National Audubon Societyís Great Backyard Bird Count from February 14 through February 17, 2003. At, the site asked how will this winterís snow and cold temperature influence bird populations? Where are the winter finches and other irruptive species? Will late winter movements of many songbird and waterfowl species be as far north as they were last year?

All the questions had to do with how well the birds of this area and across North America were surviving the challenges of nature and man, which was the overall concern of the annual event, one designed as something individuals or families can participate in as citizen scientists. Locally, the Bucks County Audubon Society participated in the count on February 15 at the Audubon Visitor Center on Creamery Road in Solebury, but bad weather kept the human turnout down.

The most common birds in the 2002 count had been the mourning dove, northern cardinal, dark-eyed junco, house finch, American crow, blue jay, downy woodpecker, American goldfinch, black-capped chickadee and the tufted titmouse. This yearís count would compare new numbers to old to determine how the birds were faring. It would be a barometer that would indicate the general health of the environment. Doylestown and Levittown tied for most species seen in an individual area in the state with 54 species each, according to Carrie Toth, Audubon program coordinator for youth education.

In a way, participating in this yearís event meant giving the birds their say in how well they had survived in the intervening year. The scientists at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology who analyzed the data turned in by people from all over the continent would determine what the figures meant for their survival, with the counts, whether from backyard bird feeders or from nature centers, as indicators of which species were healthy and which were not. The birds, by their behavior, would dictate how the count went in the hour or so we watched each day.

So for that hour the birds did not belong to us, but for the duration of the event, we belonged to the birds.

I wanted to help answer the questions on the website, so I signed up. A nasty head cold kept me indoors, watching my feeder. I already knew most of the birds that came to my window, but I wasnít going to make this personal. Iíd count the way I was supposed to, just to make sure I didnít throw off the count. I believed that the birds would begin the count for me on the morning of February 14, rather than depending on me to begin. They were the ones having to deal with the wintertime conditions, and if they didnít show up, there would be no count.

So I ate a bowl of oatmeal while I waited, sniffling all the while. A Carolina wren started the activity, one of two that came to my feeder regularly when the weather turned harsh. It was the female. She came alone to land on a branch behind the feeder, and then flew away quickly. I donít even know if she took a seed. It was quite awhile that I spent sitting by my empty bowl before two tufted titmice came along. The first darted in to sit on a branch for just a second before hopping up onto the feeder, grabbing a black oil sunflower seed and flying off to break open the outer seal with a few hard pecks of its beak while perched on another branch. The second did the same. I thought of naming them Mickey and Minnie Titmouse, but thought better of it. This was science, not personal amusement.

There were four inches of snow on the ground, with another storm predicted for the weekend. I figured the birds would come in a continuous parade to the feeder. Two white-breasted nuthatches showed up next and acted much like the titmice, only they grabbed a seed and flew off at a greater distance. They came back again and again, proving my theory had some merit and giving credence to the weathermanís predictions. I had seen the nuthatches before many times.

A female northern cardinal barely approached the feeder, glancing through the branches at me inside and flying away immediately. Her mate was not so shy as he landed on a branch three feet from my window, flew on to another by the feeder and then hopped up onto yet a closer perch, where he gorged himself on the sunflower seed, until two white-throated sparrows came along. They drove him off momentarily, but then he returned to his close perch while they took turns on the other side of the feeder.

Just as my hour of watching was coming to an end, two black-capped chickadees dropped by as the others left. They returned again and again to the seed, caring very little that I was anywhere near but topping off my count at twelve birds. They stayed after my allotted hour, and so did I, to watch.

Then I went to the computer to send my numbers off to the scientists, to make of them what they would. I was a little disturbed my favorite bird, a male cardinal with an odd left wing feather poking up out of place, hadnít visited. Where was he? I had thought I could count on him for sure, but maybe the winter had already taken its toll on him.

Day Two. Snow overnight dusted the pine trees outside my window and lay on the roof of my bird feeder. While it was still dark and I was in bed, I heard the birds outside at the feeder. They were starting the count without me.

When there was enough light, I lifted the blinds and waited for the birds to begin the count officially. First one and then another chickadee made the short hop to the seeds. The female cardinal came again but wouldnít eat with my eyes on her. A male followed and gorged himself again. Two white-throated sparrows visited while the cardinals were there, these two species seemingly somehow linked, and then when I took the dog out for his walk, a crow flew overhead, his flight so erratic he might have been just coming home from a bar. I marked him down when I went inside. A titmouse topped off my hour of watching, alone today when yesterday he had had a companion. I hoped he hadnít lost his companion for good.

When I had walked the dog two nights before there had been an orange cat hanging out on my neighborís steps. He was a nice cat, but I had no illusions why he was there. Putting out seed attracted birds, and birds attracted cats. Was I seeing fewer and fewer birds because of the orange cat?

Eight birds had visited in my hour of watching, down four from the previous morning. My favorite cardinal, the one with the funny wing, hadnít visited in days. Bird populations are dynamic, I knew, but I felt more than a little uneasy.

After all, he was my cardinal.

Day Three. I was worried about him. Come to think of it, I hadnít seen him for over a week. The orange cat might have been the reason, as he must have been for the scant visitors I now had on the third day of watching my feeder and yard. One chickadee showed up, and then three white-throated sparrows. As my hour of watching passed, only a Carolina wren, two cardinals and a titmouse came by for seeds. Since my head cold had restricted me to indoor birding, I thought it was fair to go to the back window and check out the big barren forsythia bush there.

Five cardinals, four males and one female, perched in its branches, like a snow painting dotted in red. A little later, a male cardinal fled from my feeder, and my glance told me he had no strange wing feathers. I wasnít sure where my cardinal was, but he certainly wasnít paying any attention to me. Or he was gone. There were other birds, but not him. It was not exactly something I could report to the Audubon Society, but it meant a lot to me.

Day Four. The worst snowstorm in seven years hit late the previous afternoon and continued through the night. I thought my feeder would be mobbed on the fourth morning. The birds would be desperate, and my cardinal with the odd wing feather would be there. He had to be. When I pulled up my blinds to suggest to the birds they begin the count, they already had. Four purple finches fled from the movement.

No mob followed, and no familiar friend. A titmouse, and then a second, came, along with a chickadee. Now I wished I had named the titmice, for it seemed my friend was gone for good. I needed another. A female cardinal grabbed a seed and then fled, and then a male followed her in her behavior.

None of the birds was the guy I was looking for. If he did not show up, my count would be a failure. After four days of counting and dutifully turning in my numbers on the Internet, I wasnít sure where he was. But thatís always how it is in the world just outside your window. Youíre never sure who survives and when they might be back. Survival wasnít sure for anyone, no matter how you counted, and if he was gone, he was gone. He wouldnít be a number, but I held out hope that maybe he was a rebel.

The bird count ended without my cardinal included in it.

Several hours later, long after the count was over and I came into the kitchen to make lunch, there was my cardinal, odd left wing feather blowing in the wind, perched on the branch by my feeder, looking directly at me. He allowed me to watch him for a good long time, as though letting me know none of my worries or concerns affected him. He had his own agenda. I speculated he simply hadnít wanted to be just another number on a computer spreadsheet.

ďGo ahead, eat,Ē I told him, a little miffed at him.

He had proven his point, but I knew he had to be very, very hungry. He hadnít had any seeds for a week. He hopped up onto the feeder and grabbed a mouthful willingly in his thick beak.

The count had been personal after all, for him and me.

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