Take Action for Vanishing Wildlife: “Bring Nature Home” in Your Own Backyard

Sixty percent of the world’s wildlife populations have been lost in just over the last forty years. Sixty percent! That is the estimate from the latest Living Planet Report[1] published recently by the World Wildlife Fund. Ewing’s Environmental Commissioners and Green Team members have noted their alarm about the loss of biodiversity and vanishing wildlife in numerous published materials and posts. We have read reports that inform us that the “current massive degradation of habitat and extinction of many of the Earth’s biota is unprecedented and is taking place on a catastrophically short timescale.”[2] We have also personally taken note of the loss of local wildlife. Where are the boundless flocks of migrating birds that filled the autumn skies of our youth, the omnipresent lightning bugs that lit up our backyard summer evenings, the butterflies, the bees, the bats…?

Habitat loss is key. Suburban neighborhoods have exchanged healthy native habitats for vast stretches of manicured lawns which contribute little of ecological value. Industrial agriculture also plays a heavy role in unsustainable loss of habitat while also promoting synthetic chemicals and monocropping. We depend upon wildlife for critical ecosystem services and again, we wonder if we are destroying our planet’ s ability to support our way of life.

If you too are alarmed about the extent of this crisis and wonder what you can do to ensure that your children and grandchildren will be able enjoy the natural world as we did, we invite you to follow the example of two of Ewing’s Environmental Commissioners, both wildlife champions, who work to promote and protect wildlife habitat and diversity on their own properties. Ewing Environmental Commissioner, former chair, and avid birder Lee Farnham participates in Project FeederWatch, a citizen science program run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that counts birds and species at local feeders from November through April each year. This project helps scientists quantify the health of bird populations around the nation. And Environmental Commissioner and Green Team Chair Joanne Mullowney comes at the problem from her long-term gardening experience and now gardens for wildlife on her National Wildlife Federation certified property. They are taking action for vanishing wildlife species and we encourage you to read on to learn how you can do the same.

National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife Program

The goal of the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife Program is to encourage all land owners to live more sustainably and harmoniously with nature on their own properties. This means changing landscape management practices to support wildlife by (1) gardening organically and eliminating the application of synthetic chemicals to the landscape, (2) removing some of your lawn to provide food, cover and shelter for wildlife thru the establishment of native plant communities, and (3) providing the water sources, however small, that wildlife needs to survive.

Lest you think that gardening for wildlife does not fit the suburban landscape ethic, we strongly disagree. A well-maintained habitat garden will not only be a refuge for our vanishing wildlife; but can be structured and beautiful. Joanne participates in the Green Team’s Annual Garden Tour and is proud to invite people to visit her gardens during the Tour each year.

If you would like to learn more about how to provide habitat in your own yard and gardening for wildlife, we have enrolled Ewing in the National Wildlife Federation’s Community Gardening for Wildlife Program. See our new website, the Ewing Community Wildlife Habitat Project, and join us to protect wildlife in Ewing. There are currently about 50 certified gardens in and about town.

Project FeederWatch

Project FeederWatch, a program for birders, is a citizen science program run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada and is a November-April survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards and common areas in North America. Participants count the birds they see at their feeders and their species on a regular schedule and send their counts to Project FeederWatch. Anyone interested in birds can participate.

This fall and winter season, Lee is once again going to pick up his binoculars to count the birds that visit his backyard feeders for project scientists. His beautiful and wonderfully wooded backyard is ideal for his avian visitors and offers plenty of shelter, cover and food (and really should be NWF certified).

Lee’s observations will be added to those of thousands of others across North America to help understand the distribution and abundance of birds that visit American feeders. This data also helps scientists to understand:

  • Changes in the winter ranges of feeder birds
  • The kinds of foods and environmental factors that attract birds
  • How disease is spread among birds that visit feeders

His data can help scientists show how climate change and decreased habitat are impacting winter bird communities.

In the coming months we will be posting the results of his weekly backyard observations. If you feed the birds in your backyard, you too can take on the role of citizen scientist while enjoying avian backyard wildlife up close this coming FeederWatch season. All you need to do is to install a feeder, count the birds that visit, and report your results to FeederWatch scientists. For more information about how you can participate go to https://feederwatch.org/about/how-to-participate/.

You may not be a birder, but there are many ways people participate in citizen science activities to help scientists around the country monitor and manage wildlife populations. From the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, to the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program, to the annual Horseshoe Crab Count during spawning season, and the spring and fall seasonal butterfly counts for the North American Butterfly Association, there are many opportunities to do so and the contributions from citizen scientists provide data on scales previously unattainable for most research teams. We also believe that anyone can plant native plants in their yards and learn to garden more sustainably.

Join us. You will reap a truer enjoyment of the natural world and a deeper connection to nature. Do it because wildlife matters and is worth protecting.

[1] Living Planet Report – 2018: Aiming Higher. Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A.(Eds). World Wildlife Federation, Gland, Switzerland. 2018.
[2] The Current Biodiversity Extinction Event: Scenarios for Mitigation and Recovery. Michael J. Novacek and Elsa E. Cleland. PNAS 2001 May, 98 (10) 5466-5470.

Project FeederWatch Catchup

By Lee Farnham

Weekend of Jan 13/14

It wasn’t quite as cold this past weekend, and that might have accounted for our seeing one species fewer, but 55 fewer birds among the ones we did.  When you compare the numbers of Goldfinch with last weekend and this, it was 54 v. 29; Juncos were 16 v. 9; White-Throated Sparrows were 19 v. 7 and Mourning Doves were 20 v. 14….and the Flicker seen last weekend didn’t return 😦 .  The rest of the supporting cast was there, as always:  Carolina Wren, Titmice, Cardinals, White-Breasted Nuthatch, three Downy Woodpeckers, one Hairy and two Red Bellies.

There may be another thing at work….squirrels!  We normally spread seed on the ground beneath both our Sunflower Hearts Squirrel Buster feeder, and the Safflower tube feeder because we’ve seen, over the years, that some birds are ground feeders, and don’t go to a suspended Feeder.  White-Throated Sparrows, Juncos and Mourning Doves are ground feeders, while House and Goldfinches prefer feeders…but what if the ten fat squirrels that hand around our feeders are the cause of the White Throats and Juncos shifting their feeders some?  Could that account for the greater numbers of same we’ve seen on our deck, where we spread the Thistle (Niger) seed, as well as be a deterrent for other hungry birds?

Time will tell, so be sure to tune in next week for the results of Feeder Watch for 1/20-21.  This was our 231st submission to Feeder Watch, and it’s more enthralling than ever.

Weekend of Jan 6 & 7

With the bitter cold, and snow still on the ground, we expected a big number of birds this past weekend, and weren’t disappointed.  It seemed like there were hordes on the feeders, whenever we looked out the window at our deck or at the lower yard, under the feeders or suet, …  and don’t forget the water.

On Saturday night I emptied the water out of the bird bath, carried the rocks, water heater and bird bath into the kitchen, cleaned the moss off everything, and then ran it all through the dishwasher so the birds would greet Sunday, the coldest day so far, with clean, warmish water and clean rocks to perch on.  The effort was rewarded by a Northern Flicker late Sunday a.m., who flew directly onto the deck rail, jumped onto the side of the bird bath and took many swallows of water, and also wiggled his face in it!!   What a treat to see such a beautifully colored woodpecker within ten feet, and to watch while he tanked up and washed his face.  When he flew off he didn’t stop for any suet or Sunflower hearts, he just went (but he came back the next two days around the same time, so maybe he’ll be a regular).

Aside from that thrill, it was interesting to see how two species which are mostly ground-feeders here, the Northern Junco and the White-Throated Sparrow have expanded their ranges in our yard.  Normally seen underneath the Safflower or Sunflower Heart feeders, we now see them on the deck where we’ve spread Niger seed for the Goldfinches.

Juncos, in fact, take over the deck (but not the deck rail), and we’ve counted more than twenty of them having an early breakfast there.  The White-Throated Sparrows have started to appear on the deck, but not in the same numbers, and they are still mostly under the Safflower and Sunflower heart feeders….still, to see fourteen White-Throats on the deck at one time is unusual.

One thing particularly evident this weekend was how the different species which feed together under the feeders get along so well.  It was particularly evident under the Safflower feeder where Mourning Doves congregate.  This time, in the early afternoon, they were joined by Cardinals (male and female), White-Throated Sparrows, House Finches, Juncos and Carolina Wrens.  Each was busy pecking at some loose seed, but none was paying any attention to the other birds.  The only upset came when the Squirrels (there are about ten, rambunctious and well fed) ran through the feeding area scattering everyone…but it was momentary, and order was soon restored.

For the week we bought another 40# of Niger Seed as we’ve been running through it at a great rate, now that we’re also spreading it on our deck.

Next week we’re going to keep an eye out for Pine Siskins (which look like a cross between a Goldfinch and a House Finch, but aren’t because those two species don’t hybridize).  If winter supplies for them in Ontario run short, they’ve been known to come south looking for food.  In 2009 there was just such an irruption, and we saw a few at first, but then reported a maximum of 55 in one weekend before they started tapering off.  Our cat will help us look too, as she sits on her cushion and watches the deck activity each day.

Weekend of Dec 30/31

At 0715 on Saturday a.m., I opened our bedroom curtains to the backyard and saw a Coopers Hawk sitting on a horizontal branch 20′ from me.  He was looking west, and fidgeting hungrily, but staying where he was.  A quick check of our deck and yard feeders showed no birds at all….they’d sensed his arrival and disappeared, a good thing because Coopers Hawks prey on birds, and we’ve found remains of Doves and Titmice that they’ve probably done.

Before long the hawk was gone and things began to return to normal.  Our deck, where we have the two Thistle feeders plus spread seed on the deck rail and on the deck itself were doing a land office business:  fourteen Juncos busied themselves on the deck itself poking around in the Thistle seed (they like to poke around in the vines at that level too; on the deck rail, and on the Thistle feeders themselves, we eventually counted 33 Goldfinches this past weekend, a few were in trees waiting for their turns, and a couple were on the Sunflower feeder, but most were on the deck rail and the two feeders there.  A lone Song Sparrow was also spied among the Juncos on the deck; they’re not often seen.

The suet feeder, hung off a cable between a Dogwood and our deck had a nice collection of clients, and a new peanut butter suet cake to boot.  The three woodpeckers, Red-Bellied, Hairy and Downy were all on it, but also the White-Breasted Nuthatch was seen, as was the Carolina Wren.  Other species like Juncos and White-Throated Sparrows will sometimes station themselves below the suet, on the ground, to catch extra pieces as they’re ripped off by the bigger woodpeckers….you should see the mess a Pileated Woodpecker makes, with its massive bill…. but it helps the small fry share in the booty.

Since it snowed later that morning, there were a few more species than usual, two English Sparrows showed up to go along with the Song Sparrow, but the Grackles and Crows from a few weeks ago weren’t close enough to be counted.  The Safflower feeder had its usual collection of Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice taking a seed at a time, flying to a nearby branch, pounding on the seed and eating it, and flying back for more.  On the ground below it, Mourning Doves, Carolina Wrens, Cardinals, White-Throated Sparrows and House Finches poked around.  On the other side of the bushy Holly which provides cover, the Sunflower feeder was mobbed by Goldfinches, House Finches, Blue Jays, Cardinals, the Red Bellied and Downy Woodpeckers, and White-Breasted Nuthatch, while the squirrels gobbled up what had been spread on the ground for the White-Throated and English Sparrows, and Cardinals, Doves and occasional Carolina Wren.

It was a satisfying weekend for Feeder Watch, and the birds knew that we bought another 20 pounds of Niger Seed, 40 pounds of Sunflower Hearts and 16 pounds of Safflower Seed to go with six more cakes of suet….they’ll be back next weekend to do their part (of course they’re fed on a daily basis, and we’re adding much water to the heated basin they use…, and will clean it next weekend, weather permitting).  It is colder than we can remember, so make sure your birds have food and water for they depend on us.

Weekend of Dec 23/24

The Grackles and Crows seen recently had family obligations elsewhere over Christmas, so did not show up at our feeders either day.  However, it was not a total loss because The Red-Tailed Hawk was back, this time late morning on Saturday.  Instead of sitting on a branch and looking directly into the house, he chose to sit about 50′ up an Oak tree, where a big limb branched off from the trunk…there was a superb view of our feeders, but he wasn’t inclined to get any closer, which proves that he’s not preying on birds.  Had he been a Cooper’s Hawk or Sharp-Shinned Hawk, that would not have been the case, and ALL feeder activity would’ve stopped until the threat was long gone.

The number of Mourning Doves, while not setting records, changed because, of a sudden, they’ve discovered that we’re spreading Niger Seed on the deck rail for The Goldfinches, and half of the 24 we saw were on our deck!  (Since we have feeders in three different locations, the highest number of a species we see at any one time includes all three feeders plus any others of that species waiting their turn in the trees.  Goldfinches and Mourning Doves spend a lot of time perching in the trees before finally coming to the feeders.

Feeder traffic starts to dwindle around 3:30PM these days, but that’s a good time to see the ones who are late feeders, principally Cardinals and White-Throated Sparrows; that’s how we noted seven of the latter this time.

So far this season, in six reports, we’ve seen 19 species, with House Sparrows already showing up twice (practically never in the past 12 years).  At the same time it appears that there are fewer Red Bellied and Hairy Woodpeckers than usual, but slightly more Downy Woodpeckers.  The rest of our visitors are about in the same numbers as last year.

Weekend of Dec 16/17

I’m trying something different with this report….showing the % of FeederWatch reporters who report the birds we saw.  That’ll give you an idea of the rarity, or not, of what we’re seeing.  I can’t edit the FeederWatch chart, so here’s a rudimentary chart by species, % reporting it in SONJ, and what we saw.

Species %
Mourning Dove and Dark-eyed Junco 84
Northern Cardinal 81
Blue Jay 79
Downy Woodpecker 78
Tufted Titmouse 77
House Finch 71
Red-Bellied Woodpecker 66
White-Breasted Nuthatch 63
White-Throated Sparrow 62
Carolina Wren 43
American Goldfinch 32
Hairy Woodpecker 20
Common Grackle 16
Carolina Chickadee 15
American Crow 12
Red-Tailed Hawk 4

What surprises me is that Hairy Woodpeckers were in the 30’s last year, and it was the first I’d seen this year (Ann sees them during the week).  We Used to get the Brown Creeper regularly, one or perhaps, two…but they started disappearing late last year and are now seen by only 1-2% of those Reporting, down from 4-5% last year.  On the other hand it appears that Carolina Wrens are being seen by more as their numbers were in the low 30s last year.

The best sighting was the young Red-Tailed Hawk.  It was later on Sunday, about 3PM, and he flew in and perched on a Sassafras branch looking right into our family room.  I looked at him for 10″ and he flew off to another house, but the thing that impressed me most was that five or six Mourning Doves continued to feed about 20′ behind him, paying him no heed and vice versa.  He looked just like he does in Sibley:  Big, clear white patch on the upper part of his breast, streaked below and above that, and definitely not a Coopers Hawk (no white patch, size, slim, gray).  What a treat.

Weekend of Dec 9/10

Snow was in the air; we noticed this on Friday when larger numbers of birds were at the feeders, which repeated on Saturday, when it started snowing around 0800, and didn’t stop until early morning Sunday.  In the interim we probably had 6″ of loose snow and more activity at the feeders than normal.  It helped that we were able to spend more time watching too, and an overnight guest, who has written six books about birding in South America, was happy to sit and check the feeders with us on Sunday morning.

Early on Saturday morning four Crows were in the feeding area; their presence discouraged other birds from getting food, but the Crows didn’t get much other than water because the safflower’s in a protected tube, the sunflower feeder has a weight ring which closes when something that heavy jumps on it, the suet cage is Too small for their size, and the Niger seed wasn’t to their liking….but they were there and recorded.

Three different woodpeckers favored us, the reliable Downy pair, and a Red Bellied Woodpecker kept coming back to the sunflower hearts.  There was a Hairy sighting on Saturday a.m. which was much anticipated since the Hairy is a neat bird.

The biggest surprise of the weekend came around 4:30PM on Sunday, just as all birds were calling it a day, when a Hawk flew in!  This hawk, which turned out to be a Cooper’s Hawk, flew to four different places trying to find something to attack:  he was on the Sassafras tree first, but moved to the Dogwood’s top…no luck at either, so he then hid in the Hemlocks at the back of the yard, but was impatient and flew off after thirty seconds.  He was about 15-16″ in length, but the key I use is that the corners of his tail were rounded, unlike those of the Sharp-Shinned Hawk, whose tail corners are square.  But, with the appearance of the Coopers Hawk, we were able to log sixteen species on this snowy weekend.

Weekend of Dec 2/3

Species seen were:  Goldfinch, House Finch, Mourning Dove, Cardinal, Carolina Chickadee, Titmouse, White-Breasted Nuthatch, Red Bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Junco, White-Throated Sparrow, Blue Jay and Carolina Wren.  My comments follow:

Still puzzled by the absence of the Hairy Woodpecker (seen once in three times), and the Red Bellied Woodpecker (twice out of three, but only seen once each time when there Are usually multiple sightings of both on weekends).  Goldfinches were down A LOT from first two weekends, maybe it’s weather related.  Mourning Doves down too, and only saw them once…but I’ve got to spend more time watching.  Highlight of the weekend was the Carolina Wren which, yesterday, busily inspected a cluster of small brown pots we have Hanging on a lattice.  It went into one pot so all you could see was its tail sticking out, inspected, turned around and went on to the next, and repeated – very heart-warming.

The secret (major) to the ones we do get is that we have heated water available on our deck rail…a Chickadee and the Carolina Wren shared it yesterday, the Blue Jay bathes in it, Squirrels love it, all  birds need a source of water when it freezes, so our supply of same attracts many.

Weekend of Nov 18/19

Feeder Watch has started again, but our cat, Reina, doesn’t seem as interested in it just yet.  Maybe it’s because the bird count is down and we’re still waiting to see more consistency among the Woodpeckers.  E.g.  The Hairy and the Red-Bellied were seen only once, the Hairy last week and the RBW this week; they are usually Guaranteed visitors.  Same goes for the delightful Carolina Wren, who pokes around under the Safflower feeder getting what’s jettisoned from above by the Titmice, Carolina Chickadees and House Finches (it saves squeezing into the protected feeding tube).

Last weekend, the first, also had no White-Throated Sparrows, but there were 8 English Sparrows (down to two this past weekend).  They’re not often seen at our Feeders.  And where is our favorite Brown Creeper?  …we only saw him a couple of times last year, and not this year so far.  Has his range changed so that we’re no longer in it?  Well, only 5-6% of Feeder Watch’s New Jersey contingent (generally more than 200 a week) report the Brown Creeper.

Of course the low count may also be because we’re still working in the yard and I haven’t spent as much time watching the feeders as I should…

Project FeederWatch Updates

by Lee Farnham.

Development of land is the bane of habitat for many species.  As open space is lost to housing, industry, roads and “progress,” animals, birds, reptiles, plants, insects, trees and flowers all lose their habitat, unless it’s preserved.  That development leads to an increase in emissions which contributes to global warming, posing further threats.

In the past 50 years, according to many studies, the population of Neo-Tropical bird species in the U.S. has plummeted, by up to 75% is some cases.  New Jersey, one of the smaller states in size (but high in population density) has more than 500 species of birds, partly because it is on a number of important bird migration flyways.  The area around Cape May is known around the world for its spring and fall bird migration.

Twenty-five years ago The Cornell Lab of Ornithology started Project Feeder Watch as a way to document the movement of feeder birds around the country, and to see what’s happening to them.  Now, more than 15,000 participants in all states (and Canadian provinces) report what species they see weekly, and how many at any one time, from November to April.

The Ewing Environmental Commission participates in Feeder Watch because one of its aims is to preserve the natural environment in the Township.  Participating in Feeder Watch helps do that on a local, state and national basis, by increasing knowledge about what birds are seen at feeders, and with what frequency.  Now in its tenth year, more than 160 reports have been filed, and more than 45 different bird species have been seen in that time.

Lee Farnham, former Chair of the EC,  is our Project Feeder Watch citizen scientist who has participated in the project for many years.  He provides updates on the bird counts in his backyard on a weekly basis  Look for his results and insights in posts to come.