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By Yousif Attia, Outreach & Content Specialist and Kerrie Wilcox, Manager, Project FeederWatch

The occurrence of birds on earth is intrinsically tied to the climate. During winter, most North American birds either migrate long distances to avoid winter entirely or move shorter distances in search of food. Both of these migrant groups are affected by weather, which varies from year to year, but what happens when the change is so extreme that it gets “weird”? Results from volunteer driven winter surveys like Project FeederWatch, the Christmas Bird Count and the Great Backyard Bird Count help monitor how birds are responding to a changing climate.

The main reason the weather this past winter was so unusual was because it was an El Niño year. As the late fall progressed into early winter, it became evident that the El Niño would carry on through the winter. For many birds, this meant they were able to find food further north for longer than usual. There was little to no snow cover and the warmer temperatures allowed waterbodies that typically freeze to remain open. The presence of open water is key to the occurrence of many waterfowl and wetland birds that are able to withstand cold temperatures, as long as they can find food. It’s important to remember that warmer weather doesn’t necessarily mean a benefit to birds. Read on to learn why.

As the days shorten, and many Canadian breeding birds made their way south, the last of Canada’s neotropical migrants, like the Olive-sided Flycatcher for example, are well on their way to much warmer climates where they can continue to feed on flying insects and fruits throughout the winter. However, for many of our temperate, more hardy species, it’s a time to be greeted back to the fully stocked feeders and bird-friendly backyards. For seed-eating birds like the Dark-eyed Juncos, their wintering grounds are right here in Canada! Meanwhile, the Olive-sided Flycatcher will be in Central and South America enjoying the tropical weather. Learn more about our Avian Ambassador for 2024, the Olive-sided Flycatcher. Dark-eyed Junco (left) Photo: Jody Allair; Olive-sided Flycatcher (right) Photo: Ian Burgess
El Niño is a weather phenomenon resulting from persistently warmer ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean and a shift in precipitation and atmospheric conditions. These changes, along with oceanic currents, cause extreme weather and have impacts for the environment and people all over North America. El Niño years have always been variable, but climate change is increasing the intensity and likely the frequency in which they occur. (Image source: Loomis Sayles depiction based on source data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA] and various media reports).
The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is one of North America’s most celebrated and longest running Citizen Science programs, taking place annually between December 14 and January 5. While every year is different, this one seemed especially mild and volunteers on the first counts of the season reported outright balmy conditions. As it turns out, the warmer weather continued to keep birds around with many circles reporting new species or unusual species in higher than usual numbers. Winnipeg had its first ever Pine Warbler. An entire flock of Snow Geese lingered on the Lethbridge, AB count, while Barn Swallows on Vancouver Island and the lower mainland were on the rise. These are just a few examples of atypical occurrences of birds during early winter. Learn more about how you can join in on a 125 year old tradition that helps birds or listen to a podcast discussing the history and importance of this program.
The well camouflaged Wilson’s Snipe is one of our most hardy shorebirds. A record high number  of Wilson’s Snipe were reported on the Christmas Bird Counts in BC during late December, with some counts reporting three times the number expected. (Photo: Yousif Attia)
Project FeederWatch is a North America-wide bird survey that monitors mostly backyard feeder birds between November and April each year. Participants have noted a steady increase in Northern Flickers over the years, and this winter was no exception. Flickers are generalist woodpeckers that don’t take migration too seriously, and will often linger further north if food is available. Unlike sedentary woodpeckers (Downy, Hairy, Pileated, etc), flickers are less equipped for very cold temperatures. So when a cold snap in January came around, as it often does, many of the flickers were now subject to extreme temperatures they weren’t prepared for. This is an example of how weird weather is negatively impacting birds. Learn more about how you can help contribute to our understanding of urban birds by participating in Project FeederWatch or listen to a podcast on how to feed birds the right way.
This Northern Flicker hasn’t lost its head, it’s actually tucked in under the back feathers to keep warm and conserve energy. This behavior is an example of how birds react to abrupt weather changes. Learn more about how flickers and other birds cope with extreme cold on the Warblers Podcast mini-episode. (Photo: Jody Allair)
As the winter progressed, it was time for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). This four day event in mid February was designed for both new and experienced birders. Experienced birders submit checklists to eBird between Feb 16 and 19, and new birders use the Merlin Bird ID app to identify and enter birds.The GBBC is a global effort to “blitz” the planet for bird life each year. With the power of Citizen Scientists all over the world counting birds during the same four day window, the GBBC captures a snapshot of bird diversity and abundance. For us in North America, this captures a late winter window of time that supplements the results from the aforementioned programs. Birders in Atlantic Canada noted higher numbers of waterbirds like high numbers of Gadwall on Prince Edward Island that would typically be further south. Waterfowl numbers in Ontario were also higher than usual. Conversely, some regions reported a scarcity or near absence of species such as Northern Shrikes and Rough-legged Hawks. These far north breeding species may be wintering further north than usual, which could explain their low numbers further south. Learn more about how you can join thousands around the globe to monitor how a changing climate affects birds or listen to the podcast on the Great Backyard Bird Count that considers the entire planet our backyard. 
Ask long-time Christmas Bird Counters who have participated on counts for several decades and they will tell you that in general birds are less abundant than they used to be. In a relatively short time, we’ve witnessed range expansions for some species, and sadly the complete absence of many others. Without long-term monitoring, we wouldn’t have been able to document how birds have responded to their rapidly changing environment. (Photo: Yousif Attia)
One of the most important tools to keep track of birds relies on the time and knowledge of nearly 20 thousand Canadians each year! Long-term, volunteer driven surveys for programs like Project FeederWatch, the Christmas Bird Count and the Great Backyard Bird Count collect information that data analysts can use to derive population trends. Population trends are what inform studies, such as this eye-opening article in the journal Science that suggests the size of North America’s bird population has decreased by nearly three billion birds compared to only 50 years ago!
The CBC4Kids is a ‘lite’ version of the Christmas Bird Count aimed to encourage young children and families to get outside and learn about birds and the basics of Citizen Science. Learn more about the CBC4Kids, which encourages future generations to give a hoot about the natural world. (Photo: Julie Clement)
These winter programs are suitable for anyone, and those without bird identification experience receive guidance from resources and more experienced birders. If you haven’t participated, but have an interest in birding, consider joining one, two, or all three of these community building programs. You could join a contingent of birders who want to make a difference by sharing their knowledge for the benefit of birds. 
Winter is a great time to start birding because birds are generally more visible, there are fewer species to learn, and in some cases congregate in larger groups than during other times of the year. Birding is for everyone and has been shown to provide us with mental health benefits and even a coping method for grief (Photo: Jason Leathem). Learn more about the healing power of nature and birds.  

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