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The 2019 Great Backyard Bird Count in a Tough Winter

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The 2019 Great Backyard Bird Count in a Tough Winter

We always look forward to participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). This year we kept close watch at the bird feeders at both Madison Audubon residences at Goose Pond Sanctuary on Monday, February 18, the last of the four-day time period. The Martins also counted birds at feeders at their cabin (Wildland) north of Rio in Columbia County on Sunday, February 17.

The GBBC gives us a snapshot of bird usage at our feeders in late winter. Despite the name, birds can also be counted and reported from anywhere, not just backyards. Nine of the 14 species observed at three feeders were in the top 10 species recorded world-wide in 2018 (see spreadsheet below).

count spreadsheet.jpg

Factors contributing to the higher species count and higher number of individuals included more diverse the habitat, the number and types of feeders, and the variety of seeds present.  We find that the best seeds for us are black-oil sunflowers, medium sunflower chips, white millet, and suet. This year our sunflower chip feeders were new Wild Birds Unlimited Eco-clean feeders, which reduce disease transmission when birds congregate in high densities. 

On Thursday afternoon, February 21, GBBC reports were still being entered but at that time, world-wide totals included 178,200 (160,000 in 2017) checklists, 6,293 (6,031) species, and 28,700, 000 (25,300,000) birds counted as part of the event. This is an impressive number that reflects the amount of people interested in birds, and more people participated this year than last. In Wisconsin, bird watchers submitted 2,454 (2,400) checklists and reported 115 (121) species.

Last year we had good numbers of common redpolls and pine siskins, which are very uncommon this year in southern Wisconsin. The eight turkeys at the Wildland cabin were feeding on sunflowers at the bird feeders and on apples in the orchard. The Goose Pond wildlife food plot of sorghum and sunflowers is helping 250 tree sparrows and 25 ring-necked pheasants make it through the winter.

Shelter is another critical need for birds in the winter. The Kampen Road residence contains an “old growth” Norway spruce windbreak and mature pines, and spruces on the neighbor’s land at the Martin’s cabin provide birds with ideal winter roosting cover. Nine years ago at the Kampen Road residence we planted Norway spruce, white cedar, red osier dogwoods, apples and crab apples. These plantings offer additional cover and also serve as a windbreak.

The Kamepn Road residence windbreak offers important shelter for birds and other wildlife. Photo by Mark Martin

The Kamepn Road residence windbreak offers important shelter for birds and other wildlife. Photo by Mark Martin

We are planning on planting more woody species this year and encourage others to provide habitat around their residences.  In addition to creating cover for the birds, the trees help stop the wind and reduced energy costs.

Thanks to everyone that feed birds already. If you live in suitable habitat we encourage you to start feeding them as well. A friend mentioned the importance of feeding the birds and asked us “how would you like to go to the store in winter and find the shelves empty.” The color and variety of species brighten our winter days, and make us feel good knowing that we can provide them with quality habitats and nutritious food.


The winter weather has been tough on other birds as well. On Wednesday January 30, Jerry Schulz who works at the UW Arlington Research Farms was driving on Goose Pond Road when he saw an eagle in the road "jumping up and down" close to the Manthe farm. As he approached he could see an adult eagle, and it appeared the eagle had just killed a snowy owl. The adult eagle flushed carrying the owl. That day felt like the arctic with a low of - 30 degrees and a high of -12 with -50 wind chill. Snowy owls can withstand the weather, but we have no idea why the eagle was able to take the owl or why the owl was in this location. It is possible that the owl had been hit by a vehicle or had health problems. It is sad to lose one of our feathered friends, and very surprising to learn of this report.

Written by Mark Martin and Sue Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident managers

Friday Feathered Feature

Bird Feeders

A black-capped chickadee waits for an opportunity to feed at the sunflower fines feeder being used by American goldfinches.  In the background a red-winged blackbird enjoys a seed mix at the hopper feeder.

A black-capped chickadee waits for an opportunity to feed at the sunflower fines feeder being used by American goldfinches.  In the background a red-winged blackbird enjoys a seed mix at the hopper feeder.

The feeders have only been up for a week, but already I have bird feeding fever! Though we always had a bird feeder in my parent’s house growing up, this is the first home I’ve lived in as an adult that has allowed me to have feeders of my own. Aaron and I are really enjoying the experience.  

The first thing we do when we wake up in the morning is peek out the window on the north side to see who is already up and eating breakfast. In the evenings, I can’t stop myself from fussing with the feeders before I head in for the night, making sure the seeds aren’t stuck in the tubes, scattering some seed on the ground for the pheasants and mourning doves, seeing who I can surprise as I approach.  The species are what you expect this time of year, black-capped chickadees, American goldfinches, American tree sparrows, mourning doves, a pair of Northern cardinals, and a skittish hairy woodpecker.  

One species I didn’t expect was the opossum that was buried snout first in the large hopper feeder Tuesday evening.  He has adopted a nearby former woodchuck hole as his winter home, and I couldn’t be more pleased to have the opportunity to observe him (and hopefully keep him well fed) over the coming months.  I hope your winter bird feeder will provide you with your own surprises and delights this winter!

Goldfinches squabble over a spot at the sunflower fines feeder, while in the background, a red-winged blackbird enjoys a seed mix.

Goldfinches squabble over a spot at the sunflower fines feeder, while in the background, a red-winged blackbird enjoys a seed mix.

American goldfinches at one of Mark and Sue’s feeders.

American goldfinches at one of Mark and Sue’s feeders.


Courtesy of National Wildlife Federation  

In the northern states that get consistently cold or have extended periods of snow and ice on the ground, you may be surprised to learn what a huge difference you can make by feeding wild birds right outside your own door or window.  A large-scale winter storm, with deep snow or ice cover, cuts off many birds from their natural food supplies and can actually cause them to starve. Backyard bird feeding can make a real contribution to their survival and even thriving during the winter months.   Here are ten pointers for a successful winter bird feeding season:

  1. Put out feeders with good size capacity:  And/or use multiple feeders to provide ample food especially during snow and ice storms.  
  2. Provide nutritious winter seed foods: For most birds theses often include seed mixes of: black oil sunflower seed, sunflower chips, cracked corn, and white millet seed.  Avoid mixes that contain milo, wheat, and other fillers.
  3. Offer fatty food too:  Birds need to burn more calories in the winter just to stay warm.  Suet is considered a high energy food because it consists of fat that has 9 calories per gram compared to 4 calories per gram for carbohydrates or protein. Suet cakes that contain seeds and peanut butter are also popular with our flying friends but is more expensive than suet. Suet feeders are a favorite of woodpeckers and other insect-eating birds
  4. Keep your feeders full: Winter birds need to stock up on calories especially for those long, cold winter nights.
  5. Be consistent and keep feeding through the winter: Birds grow accustomed to your feeders especially in severe weather when the snacks you offer may mean their very survival.  If you leave home for an extended period, try to have a neighbor or friend keep the feeders going.
  6. Remember water: Birds can become dehydrated in winter even if surrounded by ice and snow.  Putting out a pan of water near the feeder on warmer days is a terrific idea.
  7. Stamp down the snow below: Ground-feeding birds such as dark-eyed juncos, doves and many sparrows will be able to gather up the seed that drop from the feeders if they don’t have deep snow to try to manage.  
  8. Hang feeders in cat-safe locations: Place bird feeders in locations that do not also offer hiding places for sneak-attacks by cats and other predators. Think of placing the feeders ten to twelve feet from shrubs or brush piles.  This gives the birds some time to react.
  9. Remember feeder cleanliness: Your feeders can get a little grimy. Because natural food sources are scarcer in the winter, more birds may be attracted to backyard feeders and those feeders will need to be cleaned with some hot water and bleach dried a few times during the season.
  10. Save some money and stock up on seed: Bird feeding veterans say it is best to stock up on birdseed in the Fall when many lawn and garden centers are discounting it to make way for winter merchandise. Stored properly, (in cool dry places and protected from mice) seed can easily last for months, particularly seed mixes and sunflower seeds.

The first days or winter are a great time to start feeding birds.  Once you have bird feeders, some water sources, some shrubs and trees for habitat cover you are well on your way to qualifying for certification as a backyard habitat with 135,000 other U.S. residents.  Learn more about NWF’s Certified Wildlife Habitat™ program and see if you might like to join up.  The winter birds surely need you.

A mourning dove guards the hopper feeder. 

A mourning dove guards the hopper feeder. 

A mourning dove pecks through the shell corn we threw out for the rabbits. 

A mourning dove pecks through the shell corn we threw out for the rabbits. 

Other important advice found on the National Audubon website includes reminders to clean your feeders thoroughly with bleach water when needed and especially at the end of the season, to rake up spilled seed in the spring, to be sure to hang feeders at all levels to attract different species, and to hang feeders within three feet of windows to help prevent window collisions.  It is also advisable to hang netting across windows near feeders to make windows visible to birds.

We have a seven-acre food plot at Goose Pond that is dominated by sunflowers, sorghum (milo), buckwheat, and weed seeds.  A couple days ago I saw a flock of over 100 American goldfinches feeding on the sunflower seeds.  Birds have been using the food plot since September and there appears to be plenty of seed remaining.  It will be interesting to see if birds are attracted to feeders at the two MAS residences or instead feed solely in the food plot.

I hope your winter bird feeders will provide you with your own surprises and delights this winter!

Written by Maddie Dumas, Land Steward, Goose Pond

Photography by Maddie Dumas

Featured Sanctuary Bird: American tree sparrow

In preparation for the Great Backyard Bird Count (Feb. 14-17), we are featuring theAmerican Tree Sparrow! This plump bird has a long tail, and is a frequent backyard visitor in the snowy months. After winter, these sparrows fly north to their cold breeding grounds in the tundra.

American Tree Sparrows are often found in small flocks on the ground, feeding on weeds or seeds. You might find an individual perched on shrubs, stalks, or low tree branches.

With plenty of prairie and hedgerow habitat provided, as well as a constant supply of mixed birdseed (sunflower, millet, and cracked corn) spread onto the ground in several locations, our Goose Pond Sanctuary has become an ideal location for this winter species. In February, there were more than 130 American Tree Sparrows at our feeders!

But you don't need to travel far to see these rusty-capped birds. Take just 15 minutes this weekend to watch a nearby feeder, and you may spot this sparrow! Then, reporting your sightings to eBird completes your very own Great Backyard Bird Count. With this data, scientists are able to better investigate migration trends, distribution, and habitat, and you get to learn more about the birds in your area. Don’t have a backyard? The Great Backyard Bird Count can be done in a park or local neighborhood area. Get started!

Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar, Flickr Creative Commons

Featured Sanctuary Bird: American goldfinch

In honor of the upcoming Great Backyard Birdcount, we asked Mark and Sue, our Goose Pond Sanctuary resident managers, to feature a bird from thier backyard bird feeders:

American goldfinches are one of the latest nesting birds and young fledge in late summer when there is an abundance of seeds. At Goose Pond Sanctuary, hundreds of goldfinches cleaned our sunflowers food plots of seed and then switched to sawtooth sunflowers and prairie dock seed from the prairies. Sometimes it is a race to collect the prairie dock seed before the goldfinches devourer it.

There is a flock of about 30 goldfinches feeding heavily at the Goose Pond feeders at the residence (see photos). In winter, goldfinches depend on bird feeders while they are still in their drab winter colors.  Often, all 18 of Goose Pond bird feeder perches are topped with goldfinches with only an occasional house finch.

Photo by Phil Brown, Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Phil Brown, Flickr Creative Commons

We are feeding finches medium chipped sunflower seeds and we have found these are better than niger seed. Sunflower seed is produced in this country while niger is imported.  Each tiny niger seed must be hulled by the birds while sunflower chips are already hulled. Thanks to customers from Mounds Petfood Warehouse stores that have provided bird seed for our feeders through their “Buy a bag of birdseed for Goose Pond Sanctuary” program.

We are looking forward to the Great Backyard Bird Count ( being held from February 14-17 and the counting of the goldfinches!

-Mark Martin and Sue Foote-Martin,
Goose Pond Sanctuary
W7503 Kampen Road, Arlington, WI