Project FeederWatch is a citizen science initiative run by Cornell Lab. The idea is to spend the winter months monitoring the activities of birds at feeders in the backyards, nature centers, parks, etc. of North America.

From their About page: “FeederWatchers periodically count the birds they see at their feeders from November through early April and send their counts to Project FeederWatch. FeederWatch data help scientists track broadscale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.”

Two of those FeederWatchers, Greg V. and Phil V., have posted a project on hackster.io showing how they created an Arduino-based wireless data collecting payload that attaches to a typical homemade soda bottle bird feeder. They explain:

The heart of our project is an Arduino 101 embedded in a homemade bird feeder. We use 2 Sharp infrared distance sensors to detect birds perched on a wooden dowel running through both sides of the feeder. A force sensitive resistor(FSR) is used to sense the amount of seed present in the feeder. An Adafruit Si7021 temperature and humidity sensor breakout board is attached to the i2c pins and is used to provide our physical weather data.The Arduino 101 is set up to act as a BLE peripheral device and send data from these sensors over BLE to a BLE central device. Power is provided by 4 AA batteries. All of these components are housed in a custom 3D printed enclosure.

We found out about FeederWatch and the bird monitoring feeder via tech blogger and birder Leslie Birch on Adafruit. Leslie writes:

Although the platform was working, the reading for the seed did not seem to increase in linear fashion compared to seed that was added to the feeder. So, the team still has more experimentation to do. The measurement of seed is actually interesting because factors like weather and nesting can alter food gathering for birds. Bossy dominant birds like Blue Jays can also affect consumption at the feeder, scaring other birds away.

Project FeederWatch encourages people to record total number of each species during a viewing period, so the team was a bit disappointed with their perch measurement method. However, I would argue that some people don’t have time to watch birds during peak feeder hours to clock number of species. So, the hacked feeder actually allows people to view photos at a more convenient time to get species counts. Also, sometimes birds can grab food so quickly that they are hard to ID, so the photos are giving more opportunity to review details for accuracy. I think the next cool hack would be running photos through a software that can do visual recognition of birds like Merlin, especially for the LBTs (little brown things) like sparrows. As you can tell, I definitely enjoy birding, so I am excited to see this project continue.

This seems like a very workable idea and very useful tech for this type of nature monitoring. Let’s hope that the community of makers and citizen scientists around FeederWatcher can work the bugs out of this system and that lots of them try their hand at building one.