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Birds on the Rooftop: Project FeederWatch

A Q&A with Alex Jeffers, Discovery Guide

By Corinne Burgermeister
Communications Specialist

Project FeederWatch

This winter, Madison Children’s Museum is participating in Project FeederWatch, a national bird-watching program. The program, which started in the 1970s, is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, community areas, and, this year, at MCM’s Rooftop Ramble.

Participants count the birds seen at their feeders and send data to Project FeederWatch, which is run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The data is then used to track broadscale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.

alex-jeffers-madison children's museum

Alex Jeffers, MCM Discovery Guide


What can you tell us about yourself?

I have a BA in Sustainability from Baldwin Wallace University, which is an environmental science degree that incorporates classes in economics, political science, business, and sociology. The program focused on taking well-rounded approaches to environmental issues. Before coming to Madison, I worked as a Naturalist for Cleveland Metroparks in Ohio. There I led educational programs for schools, public hikes and classes, and coordinated citizen-science programs such as Project Feederwatch (among others).

Where did you first hear about Project FeederWatch?

I first heard about the project while working at a park district in Cleveland. It was there that I saw how projects such as this, and Cornell’s many other incredible citizen-science programs, helped to ignite people’s passion for birds and conservation in general. About a month ago, Rooftop Ramble Manager Julie King asked me if I had any experience with the program and I got excited just hearing its name again.

Why is this a good project for MCM to get involved in?

The world of birds is so different than our own that even when we get just small glimpses of it, such as at our bird feeders, it can immediately fill us with fascination and excitement! Creating a space and time for kids to dive into birds and embrace that fascination not only gets them jazzed about learning, but helps to build an ethic of respect for other living creatures that we share the museum with on a daily basis.

Can anybody participate in Project FeederWatch?

Of course! Anybody visiting the museum is welcome to come up during the program (Wednesdays and Thursdays from 2 – 3 p.m.) to learn more about birds, citizen-science, and how we can create a thriving space for people and wildlife right in downtown Madison! For those who aren’t able to make it to the museum, or who would like to get more involved, anyone can register their home-feeders and participate in their own backyards.

What can kids learn by participating in Project FeederWatch?

They’ll learn to tell different bird species apart from each other, why some birds come to our roof (and even to specific feeders) and others do not, why it is important to create habitat and food sources for birds in cities, and all the ways that people can contribute to research and habitat restoration all over the country.

What can kids and families expect to do during this drop-in program?

Participants will join me in watching the bird feeders  set up on the rooftop and counting how many of each species visit the feeders. They will also be able to ask questions about birds and even check out the homing pigeons and chickens that call our rooftop home.

Typically, what birds do we see on our rooftop? Will that change with winter weather?

The weather definitely has an effect on the types of birds here in Madison, so Project FeederWatch specifically focuses on birds that visit feeders during the winter, when birds have a harder time finding other food sources. The birds we have seen so far eating at our feeders are American Goldfinches, House Sparrows, and Black Capped-Chickadees. As the winter continues and more birds begin to find our feeders, I expect that we will have new species frequenting our rooftop.

What types of food do we have in our bird feeders?

Since it becomes hard to stay warm when the temperatures drop, it is important to have high-fat foods at feeders during the winter. We have peanuts, sunflower seeds, suet, and thistle (a favorite of Goldfinches year-round).

What sort of data or information are we tracking? And how?

Project FeederWatch tracks the diversity of birds using feeders and the numbers of birds within each species. By counting every bird that comes to the feeder within a certain time frame, we can begin to understand which birds are more dependent on these man-made food sources.

American Goldfinch Bird

American Goldfinch. Photo: Audobon

How will Cornell and other scientists use this data?

Cornell compiles Project FeederWatch data from all over the country to paint a comprehensive picture of how bird feeders are affecting the populations of certain species of birds compared to others. This can give important insights into how we can best create habitat and food sources for the largest number of species in our cities.

What are you most excited about or hoping to learn?

Personally, I am excited to get a better understanding of how our rooftop garden is benefiting birds in Madison. It is so important to create pockets of habitat, such as our Rooftop Ramble, in cities that are dominated by concrete and steel. This will help us better guide our efforts at MCM in adding to Madison’s bird populations.

Also, being an avid bird-watcher myself, I am beyond excited to spark excitement and fascination for birds (and all wildlife) in the hearts of the kids visiting MCM. Hopefully this will contribute to an ethic of respect for all living things in the coming generations.

Project FeederWatch occurs on the Rooftop Ramble Wednesdays and Thursdays from 2 – 3 p.m. through early April. Alex is also happy to spend time watching the feeders and talking about birds with  visitors throughout the day. All rooftop staff are very knowledgeable about the wildlife we have at the museum and are eager to speak with visitors!

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