Nile impacts bird population
By Jennie Daley
The Ithaca Journal
ITHACA -- With information gathered from more than 16,000
participants in all 50 states and 13 Canadian territories,
Cornell's Lab of Ornithology has compiled data on backyard
birds and identified startling trends.
According to David Bonter, project leader for Cornell's
Project FeederWatch, last year was "such an odd year
in terms of extremes in bird populations."
American Crow counts hit a 15-year low in the Midwest,
as did Black-capped and Carolina chickadees according
to data sent in by the project's citizen scientists. While
researchers have yet to confirm a reason for the decline,
informed speculation points to the possible impacts of
West Nile Virus.
"They really got nailed by something," said
Wesley Hochachka, assistant director of the lab's Bird
Population Studies department. Whole stretches of land
just below the Great Lakes found participants reporting
no crows at all in areas where often there are hundreds.
A similar phenomenon was noted in Staten Island, another
area hard hit by West Nile.
A Project FeederWatch participant, Frederic Buse of Allentown,
Pa. has been submitting information on birds in his suburban
backyard for close to 13 years.
"I definitely see trends. Years ago I counted about
53 species, now we're down to about 27," Buse said.
"We see very few warblers any more. When we first
moved here we had pheasant and woodcock right in our yard.
That's all gone now."
Buse attributes much of the change to development. According
to him much of the old farmland has been turned into housing,
causing habitats to disappear.
In the case of decreasing chickadee populations, scientists
suspect not habit destruction but side effects from West
Nile. Many municipalities, in response to West Nile, sprayed
large amounts of pesticides in hopes of killing disease-carrying
mosquitoes. Bonter speculates that the pesticides may
also have affected the chickadees' food supply.
Hochachka noted that chickadee declines were also seen
outside the area affected by West Nile.
Whatever the reason for changes researchers are glad
for the chance to identify such trends.
"Most folks know a lot better than we do what's
going on in their own backyards. The project is critical
for identifying patterns," Bonter said.
For instance Mark Boyd, a carpenter who lives in an urban
section of Allentown, has seen an upswing in birds in
"I've been getting more species and more numbers
lately," Boyd said. "Birds are like people,
if they find a good spot they're going to go back and
they're going to tell their friends about it."
Susan and Larry Newman of Ithaca also take part in Project
"We enjoy birds," Larry Newman said. "It's
sort of like watching a soccer game. Once you learn something
about the rules and the players it becomes a lot more
"I look forward to my count week. It's like doing
a science project in your own back yard. You don't even
have to leave the house."
Not surprisingly according to Hochachka, Davis hasn't
noticed any major shifts in the birds at her feeders.
"For Ithaca itself we've been relatively unscathed"
by West Nile, Hochachka said. Some crows were reported
killed in the area last year "but in very, very isolated
More information on the project, which depends on citizen
scientists' weekly or biweekly reports from November through
April, is available at www.birds.cornell.edu/