Skip to main content

Citizen Science

Count Birds for Science This Winter With Project FeederWatch

Science Scope—November/December 2020 (Volume 44, Issue 2)

By Jill Nugent

Feed birds from the comfort of your classroom (or home) this winter and contribute to real-world scientific discovery with Project FeederWatch! Project FeederWatch (PFW) invites participants to count birds that visit North American birdfeeders from November through April each year. PFW is part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Birds Canada, with additional support from Wild Birds Unlimited.

During PFW, students monitor the abundance and distribution of birds by collecting data on the types of birds that visit bird feeders during the winter months. The collective data help to identify changes over time, including revisions to species’ winter habitat ranges. In addition, trends related to abundance, food preferences, and even disease prevalence among visitors to feeders are part of the project’s findings. Scientists could not conduct research on this scale without the help of citizen scientists.

The citizen science data collected by the students contribute to PFW’s publications, reports, and articles that are disseminated in scientific journals. In fact, PFW shares data and publications online for anyone interested to read and review (see “Explore project data” and “Scientific publications based on Project FeederWatch data”). Students play a role in contributing to the published data, and the online resources provide students with models of effective scientific communication and scientific literature.

Project goal: Monitor birds that visit birdfeeders

Your task: Count and report birds that visit backyard (or schoolyard) feeders

Science discipline: Life and Environmental Science

This year PFW runs from November 14, 2020 to April 9, 2021, and participants will receive a Research Kit (see Figure 1). The Research Kit will be mailed to you from the Cornell Lab Ornithology and contains: project instructions, handbook, poster of common feeder birds, a calendar, and a checklist to facilitate the bird counts. All that you will need to provide are (1) a birdfeeder and (2) the birdseed. As a PFW participant, you will also receive the program’s year-end report and digital access to Living Bird, a magazine of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Project FeederWatch Research Kit.

Project FeederWatch Research Kit.

Getting started in PFW is as easy as (1) install the birdfeeder, (2) count birds, and (3) enter your data! After signing up, you’ll select a site that is convenient for you to monitor; monitoring will take place on two consecutive days, and you can monitor on a recurring schedule that best fits your needs. During the PFW counts, students will record a number of observations including the maximum number of a species that is observed across the two-day period. For example, if my class records 4 cardinals on Thursday and 6 cardinals on Friday, the 6 cardinals would be reported as the maximum number of cardinals in the count. You’ll also count birds that are attracted to the immediate habitat of the feeder, such as birds attracted to fruit and water in the proximate habitat as well as raptors (such as Cooper’s hawks) that visit the feeder area and attempt to hunt the birds that are visiting your feeder. Any birds flying and passing through overhead (such as migratory geese) won’t need to be counted as part of the PFW data.

Once counted, data are reported in the “Your Data” section of the PFW website (see “Project home”).

Materials you will need:

  • Birdfeeder
  • Birdseed
  • Research Kit (sent to you from Project FeederWatch)

PFW and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology provide a robust collection of supportive open-source learning resources for K–12 learners. If your learners are remote and distributed across geographic locations, you can share the class birdfeeder observation site (located at the school or at your home) through video and images. Students also have the option of setting up a monitoring site at their home. Additionally the Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides online bird cams to enrich the birdfeeder watching experience for all (see “Cornell Lab Live Bird Cams” and “Bird Cams Lab”). The live video feeds can provide practice activities for recording birds and birdfeeder data in real time. Students may generate additional questions to explore on the basis of their observations at birdfeeders.

Birds, migration, and avian biodiversity are featured topics found in many forms of literature, including works of nonfiction, fiction, and even poetry. Using literature in the science classroom helps to build independent readers and highlights connections between the fields of science and language arts, as students see that both fields rely on supporting claims by citing evidence. Activities relating to birds and literature in the science classroom might include a book study on a particular bird species that frequents the birdfeeders, or an exploration of the seasonal movements of birds; the PFW resources include additional ideas such as researching literature to discover the origin of bird names. The NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Books collection (see “National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) Outstanding Science Trade Books K12”) provides an excellent resource to begin looking for inspiring book candidates. Many of the children and young adult book authors will engage in virtual author visits to classrooms; meeting with the author can serve as an exciting capstone experience for students as they celebrate a completed book study.

Through combined authentic participation in the process of science and engaging in explorations of literature, students discover that science and literature involve shared commonalities including research, creativity, and claims based on supporting evidence.

Project FeederWatch (PFW) at a glance

When: November 14, 2020 through April, 9, 2021

How: Visit the “Project Home” and select “How to Participate”

Where: North America

Time needed: Variable. As much or as little time as desired.

Special equipment needed: Birdfeeder and Research Kit from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Cost: $18 dollars for U.S. residents (Note: the cost for Cornell Lab of Ornithology members is discounted to $15 dollars for the annual participation.)

Safety: As with any science lab, classroom, or field activity, always ensure that you are following recommended safety practices; for more information on safety in the science classroom, visit


Project home—

Project handbook—

Cornell Lab of Ornithology K–12 Education—

Learning resources—

Explore project data—

Scientific publications based on Project FeederWatch data—

Project overview video—

Project link on SciStarter—


Bird Cams Lab—

Cornell Lab Live Bird Cams—

National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) Outstanding Science Trade Books K–12—

This column is the result of a partnership between SciStarter and the National Science Teaching Association. For more information about SciStarter and other citizen science projects, please visit

Biology Citizen Science General Science Interdisciplinary Labs Middle School

Asset 2