LONDONDERRY -- Paul Nickerson's fascination with birds dates back to when he was a young lad and was sent to fetch the mail at his local post office, and continues still today as he prepares to take part in the New Hampshire Audubon Society's annual Backyard Winter Bird Survey.
Nickerson, 71, said he was often sent to the post office to pick up the family's mail, and he became friends with the postmaster who had a hobby of banding birds to see how they lived. Nickerson started building his own bird houses. "I've been watching birds ever since," he said.
For years, Nickerson has been keeping track of his fair feathered friends for the Audubon's Backyard Winter Bird Survey. On Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 8 and 9, Audubon biologists are asking folks to count the birds that show up in their yards and to submit the information either by mail or online using forms provided by Audubon.
According to Survey Coordinator Rebecca Suomala, the information gathered by the more than 1,300 participants in the survey allows scientists to track the quantity of different species of birds and to see where they've decided to spend their winters.
"The strength of the survey is that we can look at trends over the long term," said Suomala. "We now have more than 25 years of data and we can see the patterns of ups and downs in different bird species."
Birds such as the tufted titmouse and the northern cardinal made quite a showing in 2013 and were found in record numbers in New Hampshire, despite the fact that there was a time when titmice and cardinals were only found in the southern United States during the winter.
Today, they're found everywhere in the Granite State, even in the northernmost parts of the state.
Nickerson, a wildlife biologist and a trustee for New Hampshire Audubon, said he sees lots of chickadees and juncos in his yard, but he's seeing more color lately as well.
"I've never seen more bluebirds than I have in the last three or four years," he said. "They make an otherwise cold winter day bright and cheerful."
Nickerson also said that dozens of robins, who once spent their winters in southern climes and announced the arrival of spring on their return, have been staking out his crabapple tree recently."They go nuts for the crabapples," Nickerson said. "They knock them down on the ground and eat them."
In Concord, Stephanie Parkinson, 64, has been participating in the bird survey for more than 10 years since she took a class on bird identification. Despite her urban setting, Parkinson has seen a Carolina wren and enjoys the company of mockingbirds and song sparrows.
According to Pamela Hunt, senior biologist at N.H. Audubon, bird populations have changed dramatically over the last century, and the bird survey makes those changes easier to observe.
"Thanks to the Backyard Winter Bird Survey we can see how their populations have increased and we can watch for species that are in trouble," said Hunt. And sometimes that trouble can be identified when the surveys done by citizens reveal an absence of a certain species of bird.
"If everyone reported only when they have a lot of birds, we wouldn't be able to see the declines," says Suomala. "The most important thing is to participate each year regardless of how many or how few birds you have. This provides a consistent long-term set of data that shows both the ups and downs."
Drawing them in
Burton "Butch" Green of Achille Agway in Milford said that having the right food will bring the right birds. Species like robins, who either decided to hunker down for the winter or have returned to New Hampshire early love meal worms and fruit, while bluebirds really enjoy suet and woodpeckers crave nuts.
But the most popular feed tends to be black oil sunflower seeds, which appeals to all kinds of birds, said Green.
"The number one seller is black oil," said Green. "It's got the fat the birds can benefit from and the small birds can break the shells easily."
All New Hampshire residents are encouraged to take part in the survey. For more information and survey forms visit www.nhaudubon.org and click on "Birding." Forms can also be picked up at Audubon offices in Concord, Auburn and Manchester.