Watching Birds and Seeing Who’s Boss

Through its Project Feeder Watch, the Cornell Laboratory or Ornithology has begun gathered data on what it calls “dominance hierarchy.”  This involves watching birds’ behavior at feeders and learning who’s got the ‘upper wing’ when it comes to competition at the feeder. Who gets displaced by whom? Is bigger always better? Do birds fight more with their own kind or other species?

From observations last year, they learned that European Starlings are dominant to Red-headed Woodpeckers, Red-headed Woodpeckers are dominant to Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Red-Bellied Woodpeckers are dominant to Starlings.

It’s an avian variation on rock/paper/scissors.

The Cornell Laboratory has been conducting Project Feeder watch for over thirty years.  People who feed wild birds have been reporting their observations to track trends in bird populations. This helps scientists better understand what happens to birds facing challenges such as climate change, disease, and habitat loss. Feeder Watchers can also contribute to new research on feeder-bird behavior.  Although project Feeder Watch has been collecting data for thirty years, last year was the first time that it collected date on dominance hierarchy.  It will take more data to confirm who is bossing who.

Now is the time to sign up for or renew participation in this long-running citizen-science project.  Participants make two-day counts from November through early April. They can spend as much or as little time as they like collecting data, so it is one of the easiest projects to try. Even counting birds once or twice all winter is a valuable contribution. But many people love the project so much, they count birds every weekend.

If you want to participate, sign up online at or call the Cornell Lab toll-free at (866) 989-2473.  You have to step smart; the project starts November 11.

My Adventure in Feeder Watching

When we first started feeding hummingbirds, our cat took a great interest, often approaching to within pouncing distance.  Then the hummingbirds buzzed her, coming to within an inch of her face.  She backed off to a respectful distance and never approached the feeder again. The hummingbirds went about their business, oblivious to her presence. From this I determined that hummingbirds have established a dominance hierarchy over cats, or at least over fat, happy cats who make their living being cuddly and asking for Meow Mix.