[BIRDS CHIRPING] SPEAKER 1: The simple act of feeding birds in your yard can lead to all sorts of unexpected results. It can help scientists in the US and Canada track the health of the environment. It can connect strangers from across the country or it can bring together a couple, like the Lovelands, over a 65-year marriage.
CAROL LOVELAND: My mother really influenced me, because she was very interested in birds. Then I met Jim, and he knew I was interested in this. And when we decided to get married, he made a joke that he had to take a vow to study birds too.
SPEAKER 1: Carol Loveland lives in a townhouse outside of Rochester, New York with her husband Jim.
JIM LOVELAND: As she explained, I gained my ornithology interest with her.
SPEAKER 1: While the couple has shared an interest in birding throughout their marriage, 28 years ago they took their hobby one step further. That's when they joined Project FeederWatch, a citizen science program run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, where people track birds that visit their feeders.
CAROL LOVELAND: What do you see out there?
Well, I see a Female cardinal that just arrived. That's the first one I've seen. I've seen one male cardinal, a bright red one. So now we know there's probably a pair.
SPEAKER 1: The Lovelands bought their house two decades ago, because it had nearby woods for birds and a view of the yard. Now Jim makes most of the sightings.
CAROL LOVELAND: Actually, he's the birder now, because my eyesight is failing. I have macular degeneration. So he's the one.
SPEAKER 1: While feeder watching has helped bond the Lovelands throughout their marriage, it has also brought complete strangers together. David Bonter, Director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, tells the story of a woman in Colorado who reported seeing a clay-colored robin at her feeder, a bird that rarely ventures north of Mexico. The robin stuck around, and the woman was so excited, she wanted to share it with other feeder watchers.
DAVID BONTER: So she ended up leaving her front door open and inviting feeder watchers to come and watch the bird, which could best be seen from her kitchen table, and she'd go to work, leave the door open, come home in the evening and find bags of bird seed and cookies and all sorts of notes from other feeder watchers who traveled from all over the country to see this rare bird.
SPEAKER 1: But project FeederWatch, which enters its 30th year this winter and boasts 20,000 members, connects people in another way, through the internet. Each feeder watcher enters his or her weekly sightings into a database that reveals how bird populations are rising, falling, and shifting across the continent.
EMMA GREIG: From that, you can ask all sorts of questions.
SPEAKER 1: Emma Greig is the leader of Project Feeder Watch.
EMMA GREIG: Questions about climate change, disease dynamics, invasive species.
SPEAKER 1: Scientists take all this information, and they analyze it to track species that may be in trouble or how their ranges are moving or where bird diseases are prevalent. Birds, says Bonter, are a bellwether of our changing planet.
DAVID BONTER: You know, the old adage of the canary in the coal mine is a good one. Birds are great indicators of the health of our environment in general, and our common backyard feeder birds can tell us a lot about what's going on in our environment.
SPEAKER 1: But at its heart, Project FeederWatch is driven by basic human curiosity and kindness.
EMMA GREIG: It all just comes from this lovely hobby that people really enjoy.
SPEAKER 1: A passion that is no mystery to Carol Loveland.
CAROL LOVELAND: If you've ever had one on your hand, you'll know. It's just a thrilling experience. I guess we're just blown away by birds.
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For FeederWatch participants and scientists, the project is more than just counting birds; it can bring people together and helps backyard data become more than the sum of its parts. By Krishna Ramanujan, Cornell Chronicle, and Bill McQuay, Cornell Lab of Ornithology