The most common wildlife to encounter throughout the urban landscape is of the musical and feathered variety. Here at the Oakland Zoo, there are a few avian species that are reliably seen in exhibits pilfering the Zoo animals’ food. Many more, however, may only be spied as flashes of shifting shapes and sound as they navigate through green cover. Unknown to most visitors, many are flocking to bird feeders that were put out just for them.
Hanging outside of office windows or in butterfly gardens throughout the Zoo, these feeders and the surrounding plants provide nourishment and habitat for birds that call the Zoo and the surrounding Knowland Park, their home. Some species are year-round residents, while others are migratory birds that rely on the grounds seasonally or as a staging area along their route.
A small group of us, Zoo employees and volunteers, decided to investigate what species are on Zoo grounds and the surrounding area. We began this past season by counting the Oakland Zoo’s backyard birds as part of a citizen-science endeavor. Project Feeder Watch is a winter-long study performed throughout North America in an effort to track broad-scale movements of winter bird populations. This educational and research endeavor is jointly led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada. From November to April, participants vigilantly watch birds that are attracted to food, water, or plantings in their backyards or nature centers.
It often surprises people that these anecdotal backyard reports have an important niche in the world of conservation biology. Published in scientific journals, the data from such counts allows wildlife biologists to glean a big picture image of the distribution and abundance of many avian species, and to track changes in related trends over time. For example, if FeederWatch data indicates that a species seems to be in decline over many years in an area, that information can be (and has been) used for further research and conservation action.
In a time of global climate change and rapid avian decline, this citizen-gleaned data can become increasingly important. The connection to local wildlife that one finds through such activities as birding is also a critical part of such ventures. I’ve never met a birder that didn’t feel invested in the survival of the species on the other side of the lens. I’ve also never seen a person watching the avian acrobats of the sky, water, and land without being filled with a sense of awe and excitement.
In our 21 weeks of counting in the Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo, we saw more than thirty avian species associated with the feeders, ten of which we saw during every count. There were a few birds, such as the resident Red-tailed Hawks and a lone transient Fox Sparrow in the Edna Mack Butterfly Garden, that we also got to know as individual members of our wildlife community. As that fox sparrow traveled north this Spring, I was happy to know that we provided such a wonderful feeding ground to give such birds the energy they need for their daily and seasonal aerial feats.
With the maintenance of beautiful gardens and grounds in the Oakland Zoo, we are working to enhance the lives of the Zoo animals as well as to conserve native wildlife. Each one of us can do our part to create more suitable urban habitat for our wild friends, one tree, one nest-box, one feeder at a time.