by Cynthia Powers

This fall and winter my husband Ed and I have been spending Friday mornings at Fox Island in the Bird Observation Building, counting the birds at the feeders. I’d like to recommend this as an enjoyable and low-stress volunteer “job.”

We record the highest number seen of each species. Since there are several feeders outside the big windows, it’s very helpful to have two people. We’ve counted as many as 28 cardinals and 24 juncos! We also saw a female redpoll which turned out to be the third Fox Island record. Often there are 1 or 2 Carolina Wrens, and possibly a flicker or a hairy woodpecker.

But what’s the most satisfying is when a little “Birding 101” can be taught. One especially delightful visitor was Jacob, about 9, who was a very astute observer. He said “There’s a huge woodpecker!” (it was a flicker) and pointed out that “it has dots underneath, and a white line between its wings.”

Cornell University, which is in charge of Project FeederWatch, has furnished excellent color posters of common feeder birds. We have posted these low enough so that children can see them easily. The birds come right up to the windowsill feeders, so children can easily see the red crown on the male downy, for instance. One little boy, who had come with his class to go skiing, said, “I never saw a cardinal before!”

It’s also been interesting to show people all the kinds of sparrows. American Tree Sparrows are quite numerous, but we’ve had a Fox Sparrow, Song Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, both color morphs of White-crowned Sparrows, and a winter-plumage Chipping Sparrow which should have gone south!

Working conditions in the Bird Observation Building are good. It’s kept warm enough for comfort (we birders know to dress in layers, don’t we!) and restrooms are right there. Often a member of the friendly staff stops in to see what rarities may have turned up.

We enter our data on the FeederWatch website. If you’re interested in a certain species, say, Chipping Sparrows, you can check out the website, to see how many FeederWatch sites have reported them in the winter. This data helps when bird book authors are updating range maps, or when researchers are tracking the effects of West Nile Virus. We also turned in some of our data to Indiana Audubon for their Winter Bird Feeder Count.

If you want to volunteer at the Bird Building, contact the park at 449-3180.It would be great to have the building open whenever a group is touring the park. We really can’t have kids not knowing what a cardinal is, can we?