BLOOMINGTON -- Scientists think the warm weather in the Midwest this winter will not significantly impact the birds that are seen during the upcoming 15th Annual Great Backyard Bird Count, which runs Friday through Feb. 13.
True, some species that would normally fly south in the winter stayed farther north longer because higher-than-normal temperatures kept food and water handy, experts said. For example, fewer bald eagles showed for weekend events in their honor at Starved Rock State Park near Utica in late January because they were able to hunt fish in open water closer to their summer ranges in Wisconsin, Michigan and Canada.
But the temperature isn't the only factor that signals birds it is time to go south. The length of days plays a role, too.
"Most will migrate to their usual places, as it is linked to the light cycle, not temperature," said Angelo Capparella, bird expert and professor at Illinois State University's biology department.
From a bird's perspective, the downside of a warm winter is at least twofold. A sudden cold snap can be hard on species that would normally be out of harm's way in warmer climates, said Capparella and Given Harper, a bird expert at Illinois Wesleyan University. In addition, warm weather can throw off the timing of the emergence of bugs and other things the birds need for food as they move back to the north, they said.
The Great Backyard Bird Count asks everyday birdwatchers to be citizen scientists and help bird experts at Cornell Lab of Ornithology chart bird movements. To take part, you need only watch and count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count and enter the results at www.birdcount.org. The website also offers help to identify birds.
It's called the Great Backyard Bird Count, but observations can be made anywhere, including parks, nature centers and trails. Just be sure to do the counting at the same place each day. Take a camera along; the event includes a photo contest and a prize drawing for participants who enter their bird checklists online.
The four-day count typically records more than 10 million sightings. The results provide "a snapshot" of more than 600 bird species. Trends in bird movements surface when results from year to year are compared.
Even during last year's brutal winter, 135 species were reported in Illinois.
Participants from the United States and Canada submitted more than 92,000 bird checklists during the 2011 count. They included 596 species with 11.4 million individual bird observations. Among highlights were an increased number of evening grosbeaks, a species that had been in decline, and a southward shift in seasonal movement of winter finches in search of food.
Bird count participants sometimes document unusual happenings, such as a southern invasion of pine siskins in the eastern United States in 2009. More than a quarter of a million pine siskins appeared on 18,528 checklists. The previous high was 38,977 on 4,069 checklists in 2005. Scientists determined crop failures farther north caused the birds to move south to find seeds, their favorite food.
"When thousands of people all tell us what they're seeing, we can detect patterns in how birds are faring from year to year," said Janis Dickinson, director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
The Great Backyard Bird Count is hosted by the National Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Canadian partner Bird Studies Canada.
A total of 135 species were reported in Illinois last year. Here's a breakdown of the most prevalent ones:
Common grackle: 110,073
Snow goose: 65,631
Canada goose: 39,093
European starling: 16,510
Red-winged blackbird: 14,310
House sparrow: 12,890
Ring-billed gull: 8,811
Dark-eyed junco: 8,380
American goldfinch: 8,114
Mallard duck: 7,511
House finch: 5,134
American robin: 4,017
• Winter is the time most people think about feeding, and it is great fun to watch the birds then. If you are gone for a while, the birds will miss you, but most likely they will survive and find other sources of food.
• Just as important as food is an open water source -- preferably a heated bird bath, since they need it for drinking and moving the oils through their feathers. They don't like the water source over their heads; two inches deep is the rule of thumb. If yours is too deep, put a rock in the middle.
• Most preferred seed is black oil sunflower (cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, nuthatches), but some smaller birds need a smaller seed with a softer seed coating like white millet (doves, juncos, finches). Suet (rendered beef fat) is always good in winter for the high fat content. Thistle feeders work well for gold finches and pine siskins.
• If you already have a hopper feeder, a thistle feeder and a suet feeder, try a peanut feeder. Peanut feeders seem to attract about everything from woodpeckers to carolina wrens. It will need to be on a pole with a baffle if you have squirrels -- they love peanuts, too.
• Feed year-round; if birds know they can find food on your property when natural foods are scarce, they are more likely to stay.
SOURCE: Deanna Frautschi, master naturalist