The recent rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a species formerly thought to be extinct, has made birdwatching cool again, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is encouraging students to get in on the action. Project FeederWatch is a program operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in partnership with the National Audubon Society, Bird Studies Canada, and Canadian Nature Federation. Over 15,000 volunteer birdwatchers across North America report sightings of birds at feeders during the winter to track the distribution and abundance of different species. This program has been going on for eighteen years, but this year is especially important.
Last winter, the red-bellied woodpecker was spotted at feeders in New England and Atlantic Canada, further north than their typical southern range. Project FeederWatch is tracking the birds, to find out if they have returned to their new northern homes and how they are faring in the new location.
Although it is named “red-bellied,” a red streak on the back of its head is the most distinctive thing about its appearance, giving the woodpecker a bright-red mohawk. But although it may look like trouble, it is unlikely to cause problems for other birds. According to David Bonter, who works for Project FeederWatch, the red-bellied woodpecker would would probably only compete against the starling, a non-native species, for nesting space. Even then, “the starling usually wins.”
Bonter also said that this northward movement is not necessarily an indication of climate change, “It would take data from over a 100-year time span to start looking at that.” Other possible explinations include the maturation of forests in the Northeast, as farmlands return to forests, and changes in other species that reduce their competition. The FeederWatch volunteers might even be contributing to the shift themselves, as watchers offer free food to birds in their backyards at feeders.
As the hunt for sightings of the red-bellied woodpecker goes on, Project FeederWatch is looking for new volunteers. After registering for the program, a birdwatcher is provided with a research kit and a poster that has pictures of all the birds they are likely to see, to help with identification. Participants’ reports are extra helpful because people must follow program guidelines such as only reporting the most amount of birds seen at once, to avoid counting the same bird multiple times.
The program is open to anyone, and people interested in taking up the search for the red-bellied woodpecker should visit http://www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw or call the Lab at (800) 843-2473.
Archived article by Laura Rice