Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hey, Was That a Blue Jay?

Remember the West Nile virus plague that began in 1999 in New York City, swept across the country during the next five years, and killed millions of birds?

It was difficult watching TV news or reading a newspaper without finding the latest details. Star victim was the crow, though many other species were susceptible, including chickadees, blue jays, and gulls.

I witnessed the epidemic from our front windows overlooking our three bird feeders and front yard. Before the virus struck, one day I counted more than 100 crows marching across our front yard in search of food. When the West Nile virus worked its way through the local crow flocks, numbers dropped to near zero. For several years only three crows visited regularly.

But numbers have increased again over the years. Last year seven crows visited regularly. This year it’s 15.

Welcome back, crows.

Why was I counting crows?

I thought you’d never ask. For about 10 years I participated in Project Feederwatch of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In Canada an affiliated program is called Bird Studies Canada. The programs are called “citizen science” because they use observations of amateur birdwatchers, like you and me, to help track bird populations and their problems.

In addition to helping track the effect of West Nile virus on crows, I also helped track the spread of an eye disease of house finches. Of course I never made any great scientific discovery, but my reports of what was happening at Meadow Glenn helped researchers fill out the bigger picture of those two problems.

In its 2009-2010 annual report, Project Feederwatch said 15,000 participants submitted 112,000 checklists, reporting nearly 6 million birds. In the region including Maryland, the top five species were Chickadees (combined Black-capped and Carolina because they are difficult to distinguish), Dark-eyed Juncos, Mourning Doves, Downy Woodpeckers, and Blue Jays.

Project Feederwatch is only one of many educational programs carried on by the Cornell Lab. Many programs are free, but some, like Feederwatch, are self supporting, with dues of $15/year.
If you’re curious about birds, you may enjoy an Internet trip to the Lab website. Take my word for it. It’s best to explore this site on a cold winter’s night when you have an hour to spare because you’ll find links to the Lab’s YouTube Channel, an online bird guide, a library of video and audio recordings, and more.

Ready to explore? CLICK HERE to link to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.

If you want to sample an audio recording of a blue jay, CLICK HERE.

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