I’ll admit it: each February when I do the Great Backyard Bird Count, I worry I’ve miscounted the number of chickadees at my feeder. On cold days it’s like a Dickens novel out there—little street urchins darting in, fidgeting, scuffling, changing places, looking cherubic. When they’ve gone I always wonder whether I saw all of them.
An inexpensive, high-tech feeder set-up is helping us learn about the secret lives of feeder birds.
Keeping track of individuals is the bane of many a scientist as well. To understand a species, they need to know how birds vary from one to another. For decades, they’ve done this by catching birds and putting colored plastic bands on their legs.
Then, next time they see one, all they have to do is catch a steady glimpse of both of its legs, make sure the light’s good enough to tell yellow from orange and black from blue, and remember which leg was left and which was right. That is to say, it takes a long time and it’s prone to human error.
Next time you’re on a turnpike, take a look at the cars sailing through the automated toll booth lane—you might be seeing the future of ornithology. Because here in Sapsucker Woods, Project FeederWatch leader David Bonter has chickadees and a few other species doing much the same thing at his feeders.
Those toll booths work on a principle known as radio-frequency identification, or RFID. Ornithologists adapted this technology to track the comings and goings of birds years ago—but the sticking point has always been cost. Now, Bonter and a colleague at the University of Oklahoma have figured out a way to put RFID readers on bird feeders for about five percent of the cost of a commercial system.
They’re extracting mountains of information about the activities of more than 100 individual birds, with split-second timing and essentially no identification errors—we tell you more in this issue’s centerfold (p. 4–5).
With more or less automatic tracking of individuals, Bonter and his team are left with that other bane of a bird watcher’s existence: the gray squirrel—possibly the one creature more inventive than an ornithologist with a limited research budget. And so in this issue, we also dedicate some space to the backyard bandit—and offer a few tips gleaned from our Facebook fans about how to thwart them.
Even now, a squirrel is at my feeder, hanging upside down by one back foot, staring at me while bits of sunflower seed fall from his lips. At least there’s only one.