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Strategies Behind the Insanity: Why Solely Rely the Most Birds Seen at As soon as?

July 16, 2021

You’ve just sat down in your living room under a cozy blanket with a steaming mug of fresh coffee to begin your FeederWatch count. You watch for an hour as chickadees race back and forth to your feeder from deep inside spruce trees just outside of view. You know there are probably several birds darting around in the branches, but they only come into view one at a time. How do you record these multiple visits in your count?

While it’s tempting to add up every visit by the chickadees, the FeederWatch protocol calls for reporting only the highest number of each species seen simultaneously. Why is that? It is because the protocol is designed to prevent you from counting the same bird more than once. If you counted every visit to your feeders, you would report more individuals than you actually have, because some birds—especially species like chickadees—visit multiple times.

If you see one chickadee in the morning (left) and four later in the day (right) then your tally so far is four (not five), because four is the most you saw at once. Illustration by Holly Grant.

Let’s imagine an example. In the morning, you watch your feeders and only see one chickadee at a time, even though you see about 20 different visits over the hour. You report “1” for your chickadee count that morning, because you only ever saw one bird at a time. Later in the day you sit down again (maybe with some afternoon tea), and you spot four chickadees all at once! Now you can increase your count for chickadees to “4.” You don’t add the morning and afternoon counts together because the chickadee you saw in the morning might be among those visiting in the afternoon. The next day you watch your count site for the second day of your two-day count, and you see three chickadees at the same time. Should you add these three to the four you saw the day before? No, because those three might be the same birds you saw the day before. You should report four chickadees when submitting your data because you can only be certain that you have at least four chickadees in your yard.

By reporting only the highest number of each species seen at the same time, is it possible that you are missing some individuals? Yes, of course, but that is OK. The most important thing is that everyone in FeederWatch counts the same way, even if the counts aren’t recording the exact number of birds in your yard. Knowing the exact number is impossible unless birds are uniquely marked and do not move in and out of your yard—which is extremely unlikely! FeederWatch counts are a sample, or estimate, of what is in your yard. If everyone samples in the same way, then counts across species, space, and time are comparable to one another, allowing us to build a continentwide, three-decade-long dataset of bird abundance.

The need to count all species in the same way is also why you should not count males and females separately if they visit your site at different times. You may know that you have a male and a female cardinal in your yard, but unless you saw both at the same time, you should report only one cardinal. This may feel wrong, but trust us, it is OK! The most important thing is to sample all species in the same way, so that we can estimate population change

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