Three years ago, as I was climbing the stairs in my office building, something caught my eye on the staircase bulletin board. It was a flier inviting volunteers to enroll in Neighborhood Nestwatch, a citizen-science program that offers opportunities to be a biologist in your own backyard. It was late spring, the school year was winding down and I was looking for something fun to do with the kids over the summer.
Soon I was contacted to schedule a date for the crew to survey birds at my house. I couldn’t help but wonder if they knew what they were getting into. I live just a couple blocks away from downtown Northampton, Massachusetts. Both my front and back yards are tiny with one large silver maple and a half-dead red bud tree. But I wanted – needed – something fun and preferably educational for my kids to do that summer, so I told them to come on down!
At 7 a.m. sharp on the appointed day, the crew arrived at my house. They spent the first hour walking around my neighborhood listening for and recording bird songs. Afterwards they got down to the difficult task of setting up mist nets in an urban neighborhood. By this time the kids had straggled out of bed and were watching the crew navigate their way through closely spaced shrubs, trees and impervious surfaces to erect the nets. Once the nets were erected, the crew set up audio recordings of bird songs to call in certain species. (Note: This is a great way for your kids to learn bird calls!)
For the next several hours, we hung out on our front porch listening to recorded bird songs, watching birds fly around the nets, and talking about Neighborhood Nestwatch. The project recruits volunteers who work with scientists from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center to find and monitor bird nests and record and report their observations. Scientists are especially interested in comparing nest success in urban, suburban and rural backyards. Biologists have been marking target bird species with a unique combination of colored plastic leg bands so that individual birds can be identified. Participants keep a watchful eye out throughout the year to identify “their” birds and report their sightings either on paper or electronically.
That first year we did not catch any birds, and last year the crew caught a pine siskin but did not band it because it is not one of their target species. This year we caught a young chickadee. After documenting the bird’s weight and wing length, it was banded. The other highlight of this year’s visit was when the crew noticed an abundance of birds in my neighbor’s yard. They asked my neighbor if they could set up a net in her backyard. She loved the idea of participating in the program and the crew was excited about having another volunteer in the neighborhood.
A couple months after the Nestwatch crew visited us this year, I heard a story on New England Public Radio about the program. I was thrilled to hear it was getting increased local attention. Participating in the program is a great way to learn about birds and an ideal summer project for kids!