A Celebration Of The 2023 Christmas Bird Count

33:56 minutes

Two images of people holding binoculars and a large lens to watch birds. On the left is a man with a beard and glasses holding a large camera lens. On the right is a person wearing a hat holding binoculars and smiling up at the sky.
Left: Anuj Ghimire birdwatching. Right: Ariana Remmel birdwatching in Pinnacle Mountain State Park in Arkansas. Credits: Nabin Karki (left), Freya McGregor (right)

Every year birders across the world trek out into the rain, sun, sleet, or wind to participate in the Christmas Bird Count, organized by the National Audubon Society. The massive community science project, in its 124th year, tracks bird population fluctuations from year to year. This year’s count runs from December 14 to January 5. 

Ira and guest host Flora Lichtman are joined by Ariana Remmel, a birder and freelance journalist based in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Dr. Anuj Ghimire, a birder and wildlife ecologist at North Dakota State University. They give a preview of this year’s Christmas Bird Count and take listener questions. 

Want to participate in this year’s Christmas Bird Count? Find your local organizer.

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Segment Guests

Ariana Remmel

Arianna Remmel is a birder and freelance journalist based in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Anuj Ghimire

Dr. Anuj Ghimire is an ornithologist and birder, and a research specialist at North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

FLORA LICHTMAN: And I’m Flora Lichtman.

IRA FLATOW: It’s time now for one of my favorite Science Friday holiday traditions. Can you guess what it is? I know you folks love it. It’s the Christmas Bird Count.

Yes, every year, birders across the US trek out into the cold to, well, count all of the birds they see. Flora, have you ever been bitten by the birder bug yourself?

FLORA LICHTMAN: I have a bird feeder that I installed outside my living room window that’s brought me a lot of joy. I have a regular downy woodpecker–

IRA FLATOW: No kidding.

FLORA LICHTMAN: That visits me. I mean, does that count?

IRA FLATOW: Absolutely. I have a feeder, too, and the good news is that those of us hardy enough to brave the cold can go outside with their local birding group and tell the National Audubon Society about it because they track fluctuations in bird populations. And they have been collecting this data, believe it or not, for 124 years. It’s probably the world’s biggest citizen science project.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Amazing. Our next guests are here to give us a preview of what bird species they’re looking forward to seeing during this year’s Christmas Bird Count, and the Bird Count kicks off next week on Thursday, December 14 and goes through January 5. Here with us, Arianna Rimel, a birder and freelance journalist based in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Dr. Anuj Ghimire is an ornithologist, birder, and research specialist at North Dakota State University based in Fargo, North Dakota. Welcome, both of you, to Science Friday.

ANUJ GHIMIRE: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you, and we want to hear from our audience. Are you planning to participate in the Christmas Bird Count, or in any event? Tell us what birds you’re seeing outside, anything unusual, and I start off thinking of unusual. I was talking to my brother, who lives on Long Island, who tells me he saw a hummingbird even when the temperature dropped below freezing.

Now, I have hummingbirds in my feeder sometimes, but never in winter-like conditions. Is that unusual? That’s what I want to find out today, Flora. That’s my top question.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Let’s find out.

IRA FLATOW: And if you want to find out, our number is 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK. And of course, you can tweet us at @SciFri. So let’s go right to the questions. Arianna, what got you into birding in the first place? What makes birds such a special creature to observe and document?

ARIANNA RIMEL: Yeah, so I’ve always liked birds. I have early memories of being a little kid, looking up at a mourning dove sitting in a nest and just being absolutely fascinated. And I think that, like so many people, I got into the birding the way that I do it now, which is very intensely, keeping lists, going out regularly, because of the pandemic.

It was a really accessible way to spend time in nature and build community with other people who were really looking to learn a different element of what their home was like. And so birds are really nice to observe from that standpoint because they’re pretty much everywhere, and wherever people live, there are going to be birds that are around that are calling that home as well.

FLORA LICHTMAN: What about you, Anuj? What do you like about birding?

ANUJ GHIMIRE: I think just the thing about finding them, or basically, most of the time, it’s not being able to find them, but I think there’s this challenge that you like about– there’s a bird you want to see, and then you go after it, let’s say an owl or something. And you’re not going to see it, but then it makes you want to find it more. So I think there is something about that kind of–


ANUJ GHIMIRE: What drive me– the hunt, I guess, yes, yes.

IRA FLATOW: Our number, 844-724-8255 if you’d like to tell us what you like about birds, whether you have some in your backyard, what you’ve been seeing, what you haven’t been seeing. Let me begin with my question. I have to get it out of the way, and that is the question I mentioned in the intro about, do hummingbirds– are they able to survive in the freezing weather like that, Anuj?

ANUJ GHIMIRE: So technically, one of the cool things about hummingbirds is– I’ve never worked with them, but I’ve read a lot because I know someone who’s worked with hummingbirds before. Just like hibernation in other animals, they can do this thing called torpor, so which basically is when they are not actively feeding at night time, they can drop their temperature down and then just become really inactive.

And I know that they can do that, but it’s still, I don’t think they will be able to survive for a long time during really cold winter or weather. So like you mentioned, there was one hummingbird in Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago, I think, so that is unusual for them to be around the northern region. But it is unusual, but I think, if it gets really cold, they might not be able to go through that, but they do have something called a torpor, where in terms of inactivity, they can just be very inactive and then roost, I guess.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Ari, what birds are you really excited to see this year?

ARIANNA RIMEL: Yeah, well, if I’m looking at, eBird, which is this citizen science project that kind of also is one of the ways that we log birds, when I look at what is potentially expected for Pulaski County, where I live, and where I will be doing one of my Christmas bird counts, hummingbirds actually are possible, though I am not expecting to see one. What I think is really exciting about birding is that, going out and even looking for the common birds, you’re keeping an eye out for just about anything. So even though I don’t expect to see a hummingbird, I’m going to keep my eyes out for one just in case we get one because that would be important to document.

Another one of those birds that I know– a bird that I actually know is around here is an American Woodcock. These are birds that, if you actually– I encourage listeners to go Google this bird because you look at this bird, and it’s like, I’m going to have to believe you that that’s a bird.

FLORA LICHTMAN: For people who are not googling right now–

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, tell us, what’s so surprising?

ARIANNA RIMEL: Yeah, so this is a little guy. He’s like a “borb” in the colloquial terminology, a very round, little guy, and he’s got this big, long bill. And he uses– these birds use these bills in order to forage and to look for food.

They’re primarily hanging out kind of in the leaf litter this time of year, and because of the proportions of this animal as a ground dwelling bird, I mean, it’s not anything like a blue jay or a cardinal or a robin, which are some of the other common species that I’m expecting to see. And looking at the picture in the field guide, I have thought to myself, wow, I’m sure that if I were to walk by this bird, I would 1,000% see it.

But the one time I actually did lay eyes on this bird, when I got it for my life list, the list of bird species that many birders keep record of, I was not more than 20 feet away from this bird, and I had to get five different people to help me differentiate what part was bird and what part was the leaf litter and branches and snags it was around. So it’s one of those things that, as you spend more time outside, in the field, looking at birds, you start to get better at understanding how to see the ones that don’t really want to be seen.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, let’s go to the phones because lots of people want to share what they’re seeing. Let’s go to Sheridan in San Antone. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

CALLER: Yes, hi, thank you so much for taking my call.

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.

CALLER: Yes, well, we’ve had a really interesting development in Texas this winter. My husband and I are hardcore, longtime birders, and there’s been a big influx of Mexican birds into the Rio Grande Valley. We’ve had a gray colored becard, which is a first record for the state of Texas, and only the third for the United States; a mottled owl, which is only the third record for Texas, and the first that people could actually see; a number of golden crown warblers, crimson collared grosbeaks, blue buntings.

It has been phenomenal, and this is drawing a lot of people into the state to come and see these birds because they’re not birds that can be seen anyplace else in the United States. Obviously, they can in Mexico. So it’s been a very exciting winter.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, Anuj, Ari, any comments on this?

ANUJ GHIMIRE: So that’s an interesting thing that you brought up the gray colored becard. I was there when it was seen, and I got to add it to my life list. And like she mentioned, it’s only been seen really few times in the US, and I was very lucky to get that bird when I was burning down in Texas, so it was amazing.

ARIANNA RIMEL: Yeah, I am very jealous by that sighting. I’ve seen–

IRA FLATOW: But do you have any ideas why the influx? I guess that’s what our caller is asking. Why this influx suddenly of these birds?

CALLER: I think that– so it’s kind of, usually, there is eruptions of birds in terms of whenever they are migrating. So currently, in the northern region, there seems to be a really good influx of finches going on, and usually, at times, those kind of things kind of happen. I don’t know if there’s a certain answer to that in a way that birds are behaving in this way or that, but I’m not sure if there’s an answer to that, but usually, it does happen, that birds from different areas move into the different regions. So for example, even this summer or late fall, there was a huge influx of North American birds that kind of went to the UK region, which was really rare for them. They got really rare birds over there. So usually, birds try to– I have a friend who, whenever, I ask this kind of question, says, because birds fly. So basically, they go from places to places, and that’s his answer. So I would say, because they fly.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Because birds fly.

IRA FLATOW: It’s good enough for me.

ARIANNA RIMEL: But this is one of the reasons that it’s so helpful to have participant scientists out in the world taking record of these birds through whatever means they have available to them, eBird, again, being one of the tools that a lot of us established birders use. But it’s hard to really establish long term trends to see what an event a specific event like this means in a broader context unless we have the data to really study that.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Jennifer in Anchorage. Hi, Jennifer. Welcome to Science Friday.

CALLER: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to share a really interesting spectacle that we’re having in Anchorage this year. We have a resident white raven that has the leucistine genetic variation in color, and it’s just been kind of the talk of the town this year. And I just wanted to let people know there is this wonderful interesting specimen happening up here.

IRA FLATOW: You call it a white raven?

CALLER: It is. It’s a white raven. It’s not albino. It does have a little bit of pigmentation, so it’s sort of a little bit grayish on the head and the nape of the neck, and it has beautiful blue eyes.


CALLER: So there are some amazing photographs online people can find. There’s some professionals making wonderful portraits of it, so it’s pretty amazing to see.

IRA FLATOW: Anuj or Ariana, is it amazing?

ANUJ GHIMIRE: It’s definitely amazing. So I am originally from Nepal, and the university that I went to had a white crow, and it was also a leucistic one, like she said. It had pinkish eye, and then it was just like, oh, blackish, pinkish eye, but it was not completely albino. It was a leucistic, and I basically spent two years looking at that when I was getting through my master’s, and it was amazing to see it.


ARIANNA RIMEL: Yeah, and this leucistic quality happens in other species, too. I’ve never seen an all white leucistic bird, but I’ve seen Robins with patches of their feathers where, instead of that beautiful kind of rust colored breast, they’ll have little bits of white in there. And crows and ravens, as well, I found a caramel colored crow. It was brown instead of black, so there’s all sorts of variations that happen. And if you are out there looking for enough birds, there’s a decent chance you’ll find one.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you for that call, Jennifer. That was great.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Ari, we’ve been talking about unusual birds. What do you think about the birds that most people will see, the cardinal, the chickadee? Is there anything to love there?

IRA FLATOW: The duck.


IRA FLATOW: Just a duck.

ARIANNA RIMEL: Oh, man, I’m– gosh, I’m a big fan of a duck. I always love a duck.

IRA FLATOW: [INAUDIBLE] is an old line from a movie.

ARIANNA RIMEL: Well, I think that common birds are what I would say most people associate with, seeing birds for the first time. The bird that got me into really starting to pay attention to this entire family of animals was a mourning dove, which I’ve also seen in the garden center at Home Depot.

I think that there’s a temptation to say, oh, it’s common, and therefore, not really worth observing. But I think back when I was a little kid here in Little Rock, I used to see fireflies, little lightning bugs that would light up my yard in the summer. And I just kind of assumed they were always going to be there, and it’s been ages since I saw a lightning bug. And so I think, even with the common birds, I’m excited to see a bird because what a joy to live in a world where there’s such a thing as a common bird.

IRA FLATOW: Let me just remind everybody– let me just remind everybody that this is– sorry to break in. Have to pay the bills. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, and I so rudely interrupted Ariana Rimel. She’s a guest, and we have, yeah, with Dr. Anuj Ghimire talking about this season’s Christmas bird count. Go ahead, finish please, Arianna. Finish what you were saying.

ARIANNA RIMEL: No, I mean, I just think that there’s so much joy that can be had looking at common birds, even if it’s a bird that you think that you know really, really well, for example, the great blue heron. I’ve seen a lot of great blue herons. I saw one swimming recently.

FLORA LICHTMAN: That’s cool.

ARIANNA RIMEL: It’s the strangest thing, and I was like, do they– well, apparently they do do that. I just hadn’t observed that behavior before.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, let’s go to the phones. Lots of– let’s see how many we can get in. Lisette in Muncie, Indiana. Hi, welcome. Hi, Lisette, go ahead.

CALLER: Hi. Hi, hi, how are you? Yes, this is Lisette calling from Muncie, Indiana. Thank you for taking my call. I wanted to tell you all something fascinating I learned about hummingbirds. I heard you just talking about it, and they migrate every year to Mexico, the ruby red-throated ones that we have here in Indiana. They don’t live here through the winter, and when they migrate back up here in the early spring, they remember exactly where their old feeders were.

And this past spring, it was early spring. I was standing in my bathroom, and there was a hummingbird right outside the window, just staring at me. You know how they can hover like a helicopter, and I said, oh, my gosh, I haven’t put my feeder out yet. I went out to the garage, got the feeder, but then I got distracted with my children. Put it on top of the fridge in my kitchen. Forgot about it.

The next day, we came inside, and my husband said, when did you get a hummingbird ornament for the kitchen. And I said, I didn’t get a hummingbird ornament for the kitchen. I looked up, and the hummingbird was sitting in the inside window staring right at the feeder that was on top of the fridge, and I was like oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry, and I immediately went and filled the feeder and took them both outside.

IRA FLATOW: What a story.

CALLER: For the rest of the summer, yeah, that hummingbird guarded it. They do. They fight. You’ll have more than one hummingbird trying to feed, and they’ll guard it. It’s just fascinating. And I also have chickens in my back yard, and I just want to give a shout out to the backyard chicken people because I just started that five years ago, right before COVID, and I fell– I didn’t know I would fall in love with chickens so much. And they really are like dinosaurs. I feel like, when I’m watching them, sometimes, I’m watching dinosaurs. It’s incredible.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you are– that is a great story, Lisette. Thank you for sharing that with us. Maybe I should put my feeder inside the house and get better results because I’m always looking for hummingbirds. We have to take a break, and when we come back, we will continue taking your calls, 844-724-8255. It’s our Christmas bird count, and we want to hear from you. 844-SCI-TALK, or you can tweet us at @SciFri. Flora and I will be right back after the break. Stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. If you’re just joining us, we’re talking about the upcoming Christmas bird count with my guests. Arianna Rímel is a birder and freelance journalist based in Little Rock, Arkansas. Dr. Anuj Ghimire is an ornithologist, birder, and research specialist at North Dakota State University based in famous Fargo, North Carolina.

And we’re taking your calls 844-724-8255. You can tweet us at @SciFri. We have had some amazing experiences. If you’d like to share yours, please do. 844-724-8255.

FLORA LICHTMAN: OK, Ira, are you ready to play a little game?

IRA FLATOW: I am, well, as ready as I’ll ever be.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Our producer, Shoshana Buchsbaum, has selected a mystery bird call for us to try to guess. Are you ready?

IRA FLATOW: Let’s give it a try.



IRA FLATOW: Oh, goodness.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Shoshana said it was easy.

IRA FLATOW: That’s why I won’t get it. I’m going to guess it’s a blue jay. Ding ding ding?

FLORA LICHTMAN: I don’t know. We’re going to have to go to our guests. Ari, what is it?

ARIANNA RIMEL: It sounds like an American robin.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Yes. Shoshana says yes.

IRA FLATOW: My second guess, if you can believe that.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Ari, let’s talk a little bit about the bird count. You’re going to be participating in Little Rock again this year. For the uninitiated, what makes this event special?

ARIANNA RIMEL: Well, I am– so this is going to be my second year doing a Christmas bird count, and I’m doing two different events, one in Little Rock, and one in a nearby city called Lone Oak. And actually, across the state of Arkansas, there are going to be 25 to 30 of them.

And so what makes this great is that there’s a huge community effort that goes into just going out, enjoying birds, and kind of documenting what we’re seeing. My particular group that I started with here in Little Rock, one of our members has been looking at this particular section for almost 35 years. And it’s so special to be able to be part of that kind of long term memory of how this place, these various places, which are city parks, strip mall parking lots, and whatnot, have changed in the kinds of ways that they support local birds.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Anuj, what about you? You’re a bird researcher. Why do this?

ANUJ GHIMIRE: So one of the things that I really like about Christmas bird count is I learned about this when I moved to US in 2017, and I’ve been doing it ever since. And one of the things that I’m really interested to know is how different kind of human induced changes are affecting the birds. I’m really interested in long term ecological data, and then in a way, all the birders and the birding community are, as a whole, citizen science, and then people in the community are helping scientists to realize how are the birds changing? What used to be seen 30 years ago in large number? Are they going away right now, or what’s happening to them?

So I think, in general, this is really good data that we can use to extrapolate into thinking about how our community is changing, how our birds are changing. And one of the interesting thing about Christmas bird count, the US national survey, and also the eBird data, was a few years ago, they released this data where about three billion birds are being– are gone from the US in the last 50 years or so. So that data was possible because of all of these efforts, so I think it’s really good in terms of data.

IRA FLATOW: All right.

ANUJ GHIMIRE: As well as enjoying and appreciating the birds–

IRA FLATOW: Yes. Let’s collect some data by going to the phones. Before we do, I have to– I can’t believe I said that Fargo was in North Carolina. I can’t–

ANUJ GHIMIRE: North Dakota.

IRA FLATOW: I can’t believe I said that, but it’s not, in case you’re– North Dakota. I’m watching the show this week. Let’s go to Kasha in Wenatchee, Washington. Did I get that right?

CALLER: You did. I didn’t hear all of what you said when the phone clicked me on, but we are three generations of birders now who do the Christmas count every year. And my in-laws got my husband and I and then also my daughter into birding, and she’s a senior in high school now. But we’ve been doing it for here the last handful of years, and we’re seeing different trends, and it’s just such a special time, too, with that intergenerational thing.

We pack hot chocolate, and it’s really cool to be, oh, last year, that’s where we saw the golden eagle, and to have that memory that we’re making together. And if I just can share a couple things with getting kids into it, and part of it, one thing that’s been really helpful is that Merlin Bird ID, the free one to listen to the different sounds, so if we’re not sure with a bird, we can pop our phone out the window and hear the sounds, and that helps us ID it.

And with the holidays coming, a pair of good kids starter binoculars or a digital camera. If you have a digital camera, sitting around that was super helpful. When our daughter was young, we’d have with the zoom on it, the old ones, and you can zoom in and take a picture even beyond what you can get with your binoculars.

So it’s been super special to share it as a family, and then also to feel like you’re doing something and contributing and pass those values along. So we love the Christmas bird count, and we do raptor counts and other counts through Audubon as well. So love it, and I’m glad you’re doing a program on it.

IRA FLATOW: Well, thank you for sharing. Let’s collect some more data. Let’s go to Kevin in Madison, Wisconsin. Hi, Kevin.


IRA FLATOW: Hi, there.

CALLER: I’ve been trying to put more and more bird feeders out. My sister sort of got me started for two to three years, so I keep adding more and more and changing things as I listen to the various shows and give me advice. But for the last few months after I put out the bird feeders, I’ve noticed that there’s been a great reduction in birds, and then yesterday, when I was working in my office, I had a bird fly into my window, and then I saw the Cooper hawk come by and pick it off after it hit the window. And I realized I’ve been feeding a different type of bird recently. So I was wondering–

FLORA LICHTMAN: It’s a bird buffet.

CALLER: If there’s a certain type of– yeah, the Cooper and the red tail have sort of nested around our house, and they’re picking them off as they come to the feeders. But I was wondering if there’s a certain time, like the cloudy days or the gray days, that the hawks are more likely to be prey versus sunny days or anything like that. But I’ve noticed that this has been a recurring event, where the birds are being picked off, so it is a change. But I guess it’s part of nature, so that’s sort of my situation here. So thank you for your call, and thank you for the session.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. Birds being picked off is– that’s a common thing, is it not, Anuj?

ANUJ GHIMIRE: So I can kind of pick up on that. So I have been doing a lot of window surveys as well, basically during migration season. They can strike the windows, and nowadays, we have windows everywhere, and at NDSU, too. So every migration season, I walk the whole university in the morning trying to collect the birds, but I can’t get to everything. And we have few other people who collect it, too, but one time, I was looking for birds, and I saw a few birds trying to fly away as the students were walking.

And one of them hit the window, and it fell down. And I was running towards it, but before me, a crow got to it. So it was just on top of the building, and as soon as the bird hit it, the crow went up and picked him up and flew away. So yeah, I think there might be– I’ve only seen it once, but they might know that these are some things that are happening, and they just wait for someone to hit the window and pick it up and leave. So–

IRA FLATOW: They’re pretty smart, those crows.

ANUJ GHIMIRE: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, they’re–

FLORA LICHTMAN: I didn’t think of them as birds of prey, though.

CALLER: Oh, for birds of prey, I’m not entirely certain if they– I’ve seen them pick any dead birds.

IRA FLATOW: They do. They pick on the street. They take birds–

ARIANNA RIMEL: Crows’ll eat any– yeah, I’ve seen crows around roadkill, around trash cans. I mean, they are very adaptive in the kinds of foods they’re able to eat. But to the comment about the weather, I don’t know that– I certainly don’t know if there’s specific weather that’s better for raptors to hunt, but I know that, for a lot of birders, we look for overcast days to go watch raptors because the cloud layer kind of pushes them down a little bit closer to our level, and the backlighting is easier to spot them in binoculars. So I think that they are sometimes more noticeable to us on those days.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move around the country and, this time, go to Angus in Florida. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

CALLER: Hello, how are you?

IRA FLATOW: Hey, there.

CALLER: Yes, I’m always on the lookout for. Well three different birds. One is the red winged blackbird that has sort of disappeared from the marshes and the small lakes in this area, and also painted buntings. They’re here as well. I haven’t seen one at my birdfeeder, but I’m very jealous of a friend of mine that has a family of them that visits the birdfeeder often.

IRA FLATOW: And this–


IRA FLATOW: Yeah, go ahead.

CALLER: Bald eagles as well, they’re around here not too far from where I live in the land.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, so you’re not– you hadn’t seen these birds that you were looking for, and I’m looking at through the messages that are coming in, and thanks for that call. Let me ask my guests. Are we seeing a decrease in birds in general? People are not seeing birds anymore that they used to?

ANUJ GHIMIRE: Yeah, as I mentioned before, there has been data that suggests that, overall, there has been decline in bird population over the years. And usually, when I’m out at the field site, too, I work with house sparrows, but I’ve seen people around, and usually, they come up to me and ask about what do you do? And when I tell them that I study birds, they usually go like, oh, when I was young, I used to see this many birds. And especially one thing that I got a lot from people this time was the western meadowlark. Someone told me that they used to see a lot of meadowlarks up here when they were young, but then the population has gone down in recent years, and I think that’s true for different places, too.

And that data that the Cornell Lab published a few years ago trained for a lot of the birds, and as he mentioned, I think the red winged blackbird was one of those that was hit hard with that. But definitely, there seems to be a trend of declining birds, and one of the factors also is, like I mentioned, the window strike, outdoor cat, farm cat. Those are one of the reasons that the bird population are declining, too, in recent years.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Besides keeping my cat inside, what else can I do to help birds?

ANUJ GHIMIRE: I would say feeders as well. Feeders are a good place to– especially where we live up here, during winter, it gets really cold, and they’re trying hard to find those foods. And if people can put more feeders in, they’ll at least get some food or get some shelter and stuff, so maybe try to put more boxes in, try to put food in, and during summer, when it gets really hot, try to put some water baths and so on to help them.

IRA FLATOW: There has been talk, though, from people who say that there are bird diseases that get spread at the feeders. Is that true?

ANUJ GHIMIRE: That is true, and I think that happened two years ago in the West Coast around Washington or something. I’m not entirely sure what kind of disease it was but there were US Fish and Wildlife was telling people not to put the feeders up or something because there was some kind of diseases. Maybe Ariana knows more about this, but I’m not entirely sure.

ARIANNA RIMEL: Yeah, so I actually– one of these years here in Little Rock, we had an outbreak of salmonellosis. It was salmonella that was being spread through birds at bird feeders, and this was kind of a perfect storm that was leading this to be a problem because, number one, it was a year where pine siskins, which are a kind of finch that their migration is a little bit more, it’s called irruptive migration.

They’re more nomadic, so there were just a ton of them here that particular year. They can’t really social distance the way that humans have learned to do, and so when they’re all crowding around a limited food source, the transmission of disease can be much higher. I ended up having to take my feeders down for a few weeks to get the birds to disperse.

But one thing that I think people don’t fully recognize is that you need to be cleaning your feeders pretty regularly. I mean, these birds are putting their feet on the perches and whatnot. There’s a lot of–

IRA FLATOW: How regular? Every day? I mean–

ARIANNA RIMEL: So with hummingbird feeders, I would be changing out the liquid at least every day.



ARIANNA RIMEL: I tend– I mean, yeah, think about that. You’ve got sugar water sitting out in the warm elements. It can get pretty gross pretty quickly.

IRA FLATOW: Fermenting out there.

ARIANNA RIMEL: And I try to wash my bird feeders at least once every two weeks. Take all the bird seed out. Wash them down, and you don’t need to do– it’s not a thing that you need disinfectant. Soap and water does pretty well, but they do get messy.

IRA FLATOW: All right, this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios talking about birds, bird feeders. Let’s go to the phones. Lots of folks want to talk. Let’s go to Bob in Houston. Hi, Bob.

CALLER: Hi, there. How are you?

IRA FLATOW: Hi, there. Go ahead.

CALLER: I am fortunate enough to have access to a large ranch on the south Texas coast, and routinely, on our property, we are seeing 3 to 8 whooping cranes. And what’s unusual this year is a juvenile that’s about 60% of the adult height and kind of mottled rust color over much of its chest and wings.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s unusual you say?

CALLER: To see the juvenile, it is. And understand the juvenile is one of about 90 the world, and so we’re incredibly fortunate to be seeing six, eight, or 10 of the world’s 600 whooping cranes in one of our pastures every day.

IRA FLATOW: Ariana, how lucky is he?

ARIANNA RIMEL: I mean, whooping cranes are such a cool species, and one of these kind of large charismatic birds that is threatened from habitat loss and climate change and many other factors. And I think, anytime you get to see one, it is very cool, especially because their populations are really threatened.


FLORA LICHTMAN: I wonder, Ari, you mentioned that you’re into ducks.


FLORA LICHTMAN: What’s with the duck obsession?

ARIANNA RIMEL: So I mean, it’s a lot of different things. First of all, just on a base level, it’s an all terrain bird. That’s a bird that can fly, it can swim, it can walk awkwardly, but still. And I just think that, in terms of the anatomy of how these animals evolved, I just find it fascinating.

I’m also just a sucker for a good wetland I love being out in these kinds of riparian environments, and that’s where the ducks are, too. So I feel like we got some things in common.

IRA FLATOW: Geese, also a fan, or not so much?

ARIANNA RIMEL: I actually do like geese. I think they’re a very misunderstood creature in general. I mean, we should–

FLORA LICHTMAN: That’s a hot take, Ari.

ARIANNA RIMEL: Oh, controversial bird takes– be nice to the geese. But yeah, I mean, I think that these animals have evolved to fill their particular niche, and when we get to see them, I mean, that’s them living their best lives.

IRA FLATOW: There you go. There you have it, and we’ve been living our best lives with our guests. Thank you all on the phones for such great questions. I want to thank my guests. Ariana Rimel is a birder and a freelance journalist based in Little Rock, Arkansas. Thank you for joining us.

ARIANNA RIMEL: Thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Anuj Ghimire is an ornithologist, birder, and research specialist at North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

ANUJ GHIMIRE: Thank you so much for having me here.

IRA FLATOW: And once again, thanks to everybody who joined us on the phones. And don’t worry, the bird joy doesn’t have to end there. We want to hear how your Christmas bird count went. You can send us a voice memo to scifri@sciencefriday.com, or as a direct message on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. We’ll feature some of them in coming weeks.

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About Shoshannah Buxbaum

Shoshannah Buxbaum is a producer for Science Friday. She’s particularly drawn to stories about health, psychology, and the environment. She’s a proud New Jersey native and will happily share her opinions on why the state is deserving of a little more love.

About Flora Lichtman

Flora Lichtman was the host of the podcast Every Little Thing. She’s a former Science Friday multimedia producer.

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