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The View from Sapsucker Woods

by John W. Fitzpatrick
Illustration by John W. Fitzpatrick

After living for eight years in the woods above Cascadilla Creek, I thought I knew my feeder-birds pretty well. I know, for example, that Northern Cardinals are always the first to visit every morning and the last to leave each night. Every summer only one pair uses the place, because the male who sings from the oak tree just above the feeder keeps vigil all day long and excludes all the neighboring males. In the fall, chaotic chases give way to tolerance, and today in the fresh snow I see seven cardinals eating peacefully together. Come February, warm spells and the chases will begin again. It’s the same every year.

I know that a pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers uses our suet, though never together, while up to four hairies and six downies can be waiting in line. I have deduced from the directions they fly off to that two different pairs of White-breasted Nuthatches use our feeders, though it’s rare to see more than one bird at a time. I knew that Fox Sparrows would show up again this fall (they reached a yard-record 12 in mid-November), but alas, I also knew that all the millet seed I could supply could not entice them to stay. A lingering two departed along with half a dozen White-throated Sparrows on December’s first biting cold front. I knew that last year we’d see no winter finches, because the previous year they had been here in droves. Two-year cycles repeat themselves, and sure enough, this winter the Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, and Common Redpolls are already back.

Above all, I knew—or thought I knew—that I could count on the usual flock of 10 to 14 Black-capped Chickadees to frequent the feeder this winter. Chickadees form tight winter flocks containing several adult pairs, plus an assortment of young from the neighborhood, and often are joined by other species as they patrol the woods and feeders within the flock’s territory.

Ornithologists sometimes sound like know-it-alls. And, sometimes, we can be totally wrong!

Throughout this past fall, Project FeederWatch’s leader, Dr. David Bonter, has been pilot-testing a new and exciting project, the Study of Overwinter Survival, in hopes of extending what our 16,000 FeederWatchers across North America can discover. He and his assistants are color-banding chickadees and cardinals at feeders all over the Ithaca area, asking willing participants to keep careful track of which individual birds show up during a weekly, one-hour watch. Imagine my surprise when, several weeks ago, I received my census sheet and learned that they had banded THIRTY chickadees in just a couple of hours’ work at my feeder! Not only that, but my first Saturday-morning watch revealed at least four more chickadees whose legs were still naked. I now know that a minimum of 34 chickadees regularly use my feeder this winter. I have been awakened to the great privilege of getting to know our outdoor friends as individuals, and I am humbled to realize how little I actually knew about the commonest bird at my feeder!

One goal of the study is to generate estimates of survival rates for the birds that visit feeders. If this pilot study proves successful, the project will expand into a collaboration with bird-banders and FeederWatchers across the continent. By comparing overwinter and year-to-year survival rates across different regions, habitats, and years we will increase our understanding of the natural and human-influenced forces that regulate bird numbers. The possible influence of West Nile virus on chickadee populations adds another level of interest and urgency to this study. We will keep you posted on David’s progress as he analyzes the data, and will certainly let you know about any opportunity you might have to join me in learning more about the birds we thought we knew at our feeders.

John W. Fitzpatrick
Louis Agassiz Fuertes Director

This essay originally appeared in the Winter 2004 issue of BirdScope.

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