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Give Kids the Gift of Birding

gift of birding

The annual Christmas Bird Count is one of birding’s most cherished traditions. This year, consider introducing the count to a child. There’s no better time to get a youngster started in birding.

“When I was a kid in a large family of eight kids in Upstate New York, my parents told us we could do anything that cost less than $5; baseball, boy scouts, or birding,” says Tom Rusert of Sonoma Birding. “I joined Junior Audubon with my brothers, not realizing it would be a life sport to enjoy forever. It really is no different than any other sport.”

So began a lifelong passion for birds and conservation for Russert. The Junior Audubon program flourished for thousands of kids in schools across the US starting in 1910 but died out in the 1970s, leaving a significant gap in children’s nature opportunities.

Rusert and his colleague Darren Peterie at Sonoma Birding and Bird Studies Canada, are giving this opportunity back to children through the Christmas Bird Count for Kids (CBC4Kids) with hundreds of half-day events across the US and Canada from December through mid -January. Each child must be accompanied by a parent or adult mentor.

Why Kids? Why Christmas?

People put their money where their heart is. Those who have childhood experiences in nature are more likely to support conservation.

“We reach out to families and kids during the holiday season when they’re often tied up with material goods,” Rusert explains. “There aren’t too many things that parents can do to really engage with their each other. Kids get into electronic devices and they’re gone. The CBC4Kids offers a refreshing old fashioned community based, fun experience”

The Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is one of the oldest ongoing citizen science projects in the US, a birding tradition that began on December 25, 1900 as a holiday Christmas Bird Census. The long-term data over a wide-ranging area now available from these counts has provided vital information for conservation science, from uncovering declines in common birds to revealing where birds have moved in response to climate change.


Binocular Bootcamp at Pepperwood Preserve in California. Photo © Steve Murdock

It was while planning for the Sonoma Birding CBC that Russert and Peterie got the idea for the CBC4Kids. Some of the adult participants felt that the CBC protocols were too rigorous for young children. Fourteen children were turned away with the promise that there would be a special birding event for them over Christmas and nine years ago this year, the CBC4Kids was born.

“If we don’t get kids interested and fired up about nature now, the CBC will be history,” Russert says. “It will go the same way as Junior Audubon.”

They built the CBC4Kids as a grassroots movement — any community based organization can host a CBC4Kids by following the playbook — and it has taken o like wildfire. Last year there were more than 125 events hosted by national parks, wildlife refuges, birding clubs, museums, nature centers, public libraries, schools and more. That number grows each year.

gift Of Birding3

The Bird Conservancy of the Rocky Mountains – CBC4Kids gathered together. Photo courtesy of Tom Rusert

What to Expect

“This is all about the kids experiencing the outdoors,” Rusert notes. “We really want families to discover the excitement of identifying local birds and truly enjoy the life sport of birding.”

The dates of CBC4Kids events vary by location, so check with your local organizations and nature groups to see if they are planning an event. In Canada, check this events map. If you can’t find one in your area, consider contacting Sonoma Birding for advice on getting one started or sharing the playbook with a local nature or birding organization, many communities are looking for meaningful fun activities that get families outside during the winter.

At the event, kids first participate in a “Binocular Bootcamp” to learn the basics of focusing binoculars and following moving objects. They then divide into at least two teams and head out for just 90 minutes of birding. The birding teams use a limited checklist of commonly sighted species and must agree as a team on each species sighted. Each year the kids get to grow their overall bird list. When the teams return to the base of operations, the children tabulate the results on a spreadsheet and then a boy and girl representing each team report their observations to everyone assembled at a ceremony. The data is submitted to eBird,, a widely-used database of birding observations by citizen scientists. All information is reviewed by experienced adult birders before submission.

The half day celebration ends with a fun activity that children will remember — it could be listening to audio recordings of birds or having a visit from a live raptor — something that the family will still be talking about over dinner.

“It is critical that families learn about citizen science together and for our CBC4Kids to be fun and sustainable and have a life of its own in communities everywhere,” says Russert.“This was a great life gift from my mom and dad and it matters today for our feathered friends and us more than ever.”

Mapping The Sonoma Plaza Trees

Celebrating Sonoma’s Good Nature!
By Emily Charrier-Botts

The Sonoma Plaza is graced with 60 different types of trees, not to mention the many species of birds that make those trees home. Valley birder Tom Rusert worked with City Parks Supervisor Dave Chavoya and representatives of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau to create a guide highlighting all of the ecological wonders of the Plaza that will help residents and visitors spot the difference between a Canary Island Palm and a California Fan Palm tree.

Called “Celebrate Sonoma’s Good Nature,” the brochure and map will be available at the visitors bureau in coming weeks, allowing the community to gain a better understanding of the natural beauty of California’s largest town square. “One of the things we are trying to do is bring new appreciation to this amazing asset,” Rusert said, adding that the Plaza is significant both ecologically and historically, making it a true treasure of the community. “Can you imagine how many important decisions have been made about California in this square? Very few cities can boast that they have all these elements in the same place.”

The map takes visitors on a full loop around the eight-acre square and includes the unique trees and birds that make up the Plaza. Because of the diverse range of trees, Rusert said the Plaza is truly an arboretum and should be celebrated as such. The map showcases 31 of the Plaza’s trees, which were selected as the best examples of various species.

“We couldn’t include every tree because it would be overwhelming, and there are repeats (of species of trees),” said Pat Pulvirenti, a visitors service representative at the visitors bureau, who helped create the map.
For wildlife enthusiasts, the brochure also includes a list of some of the common birds seen around the Plaza. “I worked with the Point Reyes Bird Observatory to determine what types of birds you’ll likely see in the Plaza,” Rusert said. “We’ve only scratched the surface. This is a wonderful, wonderful habitat for birds.”
For several years the visitors bureau has wanted to create a map of the Plaza trees. “We have so many visitors that walk into our office and say, ‘What type of tree is this?’ So the bureau began looking into a number of eco-tourism ventures,” said Wendy Peterson, the bureau’s executive director.
The bureau worked with the Sonoma Ecology Center to create a map, but it never came to fruition. Serendipitously, Rusert, proprietor of, was interested in creating a bird guide for the Plaza, highlighting the birds that live and nest within the square.
“We just decided to meld the projects,” Pulvirenti said. “It’s become a wonderfully collaborative effort.”

As the parks supervisor, Chavoya had a working knowledge of the trees on the Plaza and the group used his expertise when compiling the information for the map.
Rusert said the map can also help the city make decisions about future trees on the square. Having a detailed list of what trees already live in the Plaza will allow city officials to bring even more plant diversity in coming years. “We can really think about what trees would make good additions,” Rusert said.
The map was the first of many steps Rusert hopes to take to promote eco-tourism in the Valley. Down the road, he hopes to create a nature kiosk in the Plaza to promote the maps. He has already begun to create similar nature maps for Maxwell Farms Regional Park and the Sonoma Overlook Trail.
“This is a basic list, we expect it will be expanded,” Rusert said.
Organizers are looking for community members to give the guide a try. “We’d like to encourage the locals to use the map and give us feedback so we can keep making it better,” said Pulvirenti.
Maps will be available at the visitors bureau soon, but no release date has been announced yet. Call the bureau at 996-1090 for more information or to provide feedback on the guides.

Protecting Wintering Burrowing Owls in Northern California

Burrowing Owl On WallWhile they’re very rarely seen today, the burrowing owl has been a constant fixture in Sonoma California for centuries, although their numbers are decreasing due to loss of habitat. A team of conservation organizations, led by Sonoma Birding – Sonoma Nature, came together to build new habitat and discuss the status of the burrowing owl and what citizens can do to help protect the native species from extinction.

The first ever California Burrowing Owl Consortium was hosted at Viansa Winery and Wetlands in Sonoma, featur ing presentations from the Center for Biological Diversity, the California Department of Fish and Game, the Sonoma County Water Agency and the Burrowing Owl Conservation Network. “We’ve got to do something before it’s too late,” said Tom Rusert, co-founder of Sonoma Birding. “What we are trying to do is educate the public.”

In the late 19th and early 20th century, burrowing owls were a constant fixture in California, seen all over the state, including Sonoma. A geological survey in 1870 referred to burrowing owls as “Probably one of the most common birds in California, and known to almost everybody …” But for the past 25 years, the owls have not made colonies in the county, and the last time the owls were recorded in the Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas was in 1986.

“Back in the 1920s, the burrowing owl was this affectionate, roadside attraction that people really got attached to. The people in California bestowed it with the name Billy owl,” Rusert said. “He was this roadside unique character who morphed into a species of concern because of so much habitat loss.”

The burrowing owl is the only northern land bird to live in subterranean habitats, making its home in burrows created by land squirrels and other creatures in the grassy base of hills and mountains.

They spend much of their time in these burrows, hidden from predators such as hawks and feral cats, only coming out to hunt by running along the ground for small mammals and reptiles. As more and more land is developed, their habitat is wiped out, often by developers who don’t even realize they’re bulldozing or covering live owls.

“They quite literally get buried alive,” said Scott Artis, founder of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Network, who recounted a recent incident in Brentwood , CA. where a land developer covered a colony of breeding burrowing owls with an erosion control system. “That’s why we see so many of them disappear in the Bay Area.”

Although much of the research is out of date, the most current figures on the numbers of breeding burrowing owls in California showed a 60 percent decline from the number of owls recorded in the 1980s, included being completed eliminated from Napa, Marin, San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Ventura counties and being nearly extinct in Sonoma, San Mateo, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Orange counties. The California Department of Fish and Game has listed the birds as a “Species of Concern,” but that provides the creatures with minimal protection.

Burrowing Owl kids“We thought that it carried some weight, but we found from Fish and Game that it’s more of an administrative title,” Artis said, adding that the species is protected from “harassment” under the Migratory Bird Act. Artis is assisting the Center for Biological Diversity in having the burrowing owl listed as a threatened species, which would afford it more specific protections. The Department of Fish and Game is responsible for ensuring the birds are treated within the letter of the law, but the overtaxed agency is often unable to commit resources to protecting the owls.

“The burden is on state agencies to stick up for owls,” Artis said. “California Fish and Game, they’re understaffed and don’t have the time to look out for all species. There’s no one to monitor these things and make sure they’re being done the way that they should.”

Here in Sonoma Valley, owl conservationists are working with the Sonoma Land Trust, Tolay Lake Regional Park, the Sonoma County

Water Agency, San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Viansa Winery and other private land owners to establish artificial habitats, which are basically plastic enclosures the birds can safely burrow in. Conservationists hope to release owls whose burrows are being developed into these protected artificial habitats, allowing the birds to regain territory and re-establish themselves.

“If we can find a safe, sustainable habitat then there’s a chance they might establish colonies here,” Rusert said.

Artis and Rusert agree there is a need for more facts and figures on the true numbers of burrowing owls before state agencies will be inclined to better protect the animals. Rusert reached out to Brian Sullivan, manager of Cornell University’s eBird project, which was launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society to allow all citizens to report on the number and species of birds in their area online, creating a clearer demographic picture of birds in America.

Rusert inquired about whether Cornell would host a statewide bird survey in California on the burrowing owl. “He (Sullivan) said, ‘It is highly likely that we will be doing our inaugural statewide burrowing owl survey this winter.’ That is huge possibility , and we in Sonoma Valley are the ones promoting this,” Rusert said, adding that he’s hopeful the survey will push Fish and Game to reevaluate the status of the owls.

“When you get a species of concern like this, this is what you hope for. That you can get the help of the highest Ornithology lab, which is Cornell.” Artis added that citizens in the community can contribute to protecting the owls by simply informing his nonprofit organization about their whereabouts. By mapping out the existing habitat of the owls, the Conservation Network will better be able to protect the birds from future habitat loss. “It just requires being aware while you’re living your daily life. Everyone can make a big difference just by letting us know where they are, that’s a huge volunteer effort,” Artis said, adding that events like the California Burrowing Owl Consortium, hosted by Sonoma Nature are critical to informing the public on how to help.

Burrowing owls enjoy new home

A pair of burrowing owls are happily making their winter home in a new habitat built in the Baylands by Sears Point by a couple dozen volunteers last weekend.

The project, hosted by, the Burrowing Owl Conservation Network and Sonoma Land Trust, built four artificial habitats for the burrowing owl. The owls used to be a regular fixture in the Sonoma Valley but ceased breeding in the area more than 20 years ago for unknown reasons. The organizations are hoping that building an ideal habitat on protected land owned by the Sonoma Land Trust will encourage the birds to colonize the area.

School children built two habitats in the area over the summer, and volunteers learned last weekend that two burrowing owls had moved into the space.

“They just sat out and watched us for five hours while we worked,” said Tom Rusert of

Rusert said as soon as people left the immediate area, the birds hopped over to inspect their new digs, and quickly decided to stay.

Birdseed Types – What is Best!

By BWD editor Bill Thompson, III
Just like people, birds have certain food preferences. The good news for you is that people have been feeding birds for many decades, so you get the benefit of all that trial-and-error experimentation. These days, we, the bird-feeding public, already know what foods birds prefer. At the feeders this means seeds.

But which seeds are the best? In a nutshell, sunflower seed. So if you are just starting out in feeding, I suggest you buy some black-oil sunflower seed at a local hardware store, feed store, specialty bird store, or even at a major retail chain store.

There is a vast array of other foods you can offer birds besides birdseed. To view a few of the most commonly offered non-seed items that birds enjoy.

Following are the best kinds of seed, in descending order of popularity.

Black-oil Sunflower

Gray- or white-striped sunflower seed used to be the king of the bird foods. Now it’s black-oil sunflower seed. Smaller than gray-striped sunflower seed, with a thin, all-black, papery shell, black-oil seed can be cracked by sparrows, juncos, and even small-billed goldfinches. It’s a better buy, too, because 70 percent of each seed is meat, compared with only 57 percent for striped sunflower. Its high oil and fat content helps birds get through cold winter nights. Black-oil sunflower seed is the heart of any feeding program because it’s accepted by the greatest variety of birds. You can feed it out of hanging feeders, in hoppers, on tables, or scattered on the ground-preferably all of the above.

Sunflower Hearts

If I were to pick only one food to offer at my feeding station, it would be sunflower hearts. Yes, they are expensive, but a bag of sunflower hearts (no shells, just the meat of the seed) lasts more than three times as long as a bag of seeds with shells. Not only that, every species that comes to my feeding station will eat them. Being hullless, hearts are accessible to weaker-billed birds like siskins, redpolls, and Carolina wrens. Goldfinches love them.

Compared with seeds with hulls, hearts are relatively free of waste and of the messy shells that pile up to smother grass and rot decks. The only drawback is that the hearts should not be exposed to wet weather; thus, they should be fed only from feeders. They rot quickly when damp. On dry days, it’s fine to spread a handful on the bird table, but otherwise, stick to weatherproof feeders. You’ll be surprised how little it takes to feed a lot of birds.

Mixed Seed

Mixed seed, often generically referred to as “wild birdseed,” is a vital addition to any feeding program. But not all mixes are created equal, and what is eagerly eaten in Arizona can go to waste in New York. A prime example is milo, a round, reddish seed that looks like a BB pellet. You’ll see it, along with wheat, oats, and even barley, in grocery-store mixes. In the East, milo and wheat are spurned by most birds except blackbirds and doves. In the West, however, quail, doves, towhees, and sparrows eagerly eat milo.


Millet is a main ingredient in most mixed bird seed. White proso millet is a little, round, shiny cream-colored seed. It’s a staple for most sparrows and juncos, as well as doves, Carolina wrens, thrashers, and cardinals.

Cracked Corn

Another common ingredient of good mixed seed is cracked corn, which is accepted by most birds after the sunflower and millet are gone. Cracked corn is the cheapest and best offering for quail, pheasants, and doves,but it is irresistible to blackbirds, cowbirds, grackles, and house sparrows. If you’re inundated by these less desirable birds, you may want stop offering corn.

The third ingredient of a good mix is our old buddy, black-oil sunflower seed. Peanut hearts, which are small, rather bitter byproducts of peanut processing, make birdseed mixes smell good (which is nice for us), boost the price (which is nice for retailers), and may appeal to chickadees, titmice, jays, and wrens. Peanut hearts are not vital because, in my experience, the sunflower always goes first anyway. This is not to devalue whole peanuts as a food–they can be great if offered in the right feeder.


In Europe, peanuts have been a staple of bird feeding for years. But peanuts have become popular for bird feeding in North America just in the past decade. Peanuts are a vital part of my feeding program. Woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, creepers, titmice, and wrens are among the birds favoring peanuts. The peanuts we use for bird feeding are rejects from the cocktail peanut trade. They are out of the shell and usually roasted but not salted.

When offered in the shell, only crows, jays, and the occasional clever titmouse can really exploit them, because peanuts are just too big and cumbersome for most birds to crack open. Better feed and birdseed stores, though, sell raw shelled peanuts in bulk. If you can’t find these in your area, you can buy the cheapest unsalted roasted cocktail peanuts (sold in cans or jars) at your grocery store.

Offered in wire mesh tube feeders, in mesh bags, or in hopper and platform feeders, peanuts are an incredibly popular food, especially in harsh winter weather. They offer a great high-protein boost to winter-weary birds and help insect eaters like wrens, woodpeckers, and sometimes even sapsuckers make it through. Peanuts can be subject to mold in hot, wet weather. Check them often for signs of black mold or the darkening in color that can mean they’ve gone rancid. Offer only as many as the birds will eat in a few days in warmer weather.


Niger, or thistle seed (now sometimes referred to by the commercial name of Nyjer) is imported from Africa and Asia. The seed is sterilized, so it won’t germinate in North America. Thistle seed requires a special feeder style, one that has small openings sized to accommodate the tiny seeds but still permit birds to gain access to the seed. Thistle seed can be somewhat expensive and is subject to mold, especially in hot, damp weather. To avoid this, shake your feeders every time you fill them to be sure the seed is coming out of the ports properly. If the seed clumps, you may have to dump it out where the birds won’t find it and wash and dry your feeder before refilling it. Fine mesh nylon thistle “socks” are a cheap way to feed Niger, and they let air circulate around the seed. If you don’t mind paying a bit more per pound, thistle/Niger seed will really attract finches and siskins to your feeders.


Safflower is a white, shiny conical seed that’s gaining popularity among people who find that cardinals like it and some squirrels and grackles don’t. The operative word in that statement is some. Lots of squirrels love safflower seed. Safflower seed is usually found in bulk at better feed stores. You can offer it in any feeder that dispenses sunflower seed or scatter it on the ground to attract cardinals (who aren’t much for perching on tube feeders). Safflower seed is nice to offer, but not vital; any bird that will eat safflower will also take sunflower seed.

Major Shift in Bird Species – PRBO Study

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE – In one fell swoop, the changes in bird habitats and behavior between now and 2070 will equal the evolutionary and adaptive shifts that normally occur over tens of thousands of years, according to researchers with PRBO, also known as the Point Reyes Bird Observatory.

“What we found is that not only will species shift and communities change, but the composition of communities in certain places will not resemble anything we see today,” said Diana Stralberg, a landscape ecologist and the lead author of the report, “Reshuffling of Species With Climate Disruption: A No-Analog Future for California Birds?”
“Species will exist in different and unusual combinations,” she said. “Food and prey might not be available, and there may be unanticipated interactions with other species, including predators.”
The study predicts a scramble among bird populations for new flocking partners and habitats, which will undoubtedly ruffle a few feathers. Some birds will be pushed toward extinction as they struggle against unfamiliar avian competitors, strange predators and unpredictable prey.
Study’s predictions
— Species including the California thrasher, rufous-crowned sparrow and ash-throated flycatcher will move to the Point Reyes Peninsula as it gets drier and less foggy. Those birds will then commune with strangers like the purple finch and black-throated gray warbler.
— The distribution of the white-crowned sparrow, a black-and-white bird that likes coastal scrublands, including Point Reyes, will decline 76 percent, meaning they will be found in fewer places as temperatures rise.
— The distribution of the varied thrush, a large, robinlike bird from the Pacific Northwest that often spends winters in California, will decline 87 percent.
— The distribution of the yellow-billed magpie, commonly found in oak woodlands only in California, will decline by 32 percent.
— Of the five bird species, including fox sparrows, Clark’s nutcrackers and MacGillivray’s warblers, that will see the greatest percentage declines in distribution, only one, the white-crowned sparrow, is not a forest-dwelling species. The distribution of some species, like acorn woodpeckers, will actually increase.
John Wiens, PRBO’s chief conservation science officer, said what happens to birds could happen to us all.
“Birds are nature’s barometers,” said Wiens, who co-wrote the study. “If birds occur in different combinations in the future, it’s likely that other organisms such as insects and plants will as well. The reshuffling of bird assemblages that we project may just be the tip of the iceberg.”
The study, which will be published today in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE, was conducted by scientists with PRBO, Stanford University, UC Santa Cruz and the Klamath Bird Observatory. They studied 60 birds from various California habitats, including oak woodlands, conifer forests, grasslands, riparian and coastal scrub.
The research team used models designed to predict changes in the snowpack, rainfall, plant and tree distribution between now and 2070 and compared that to the bird populations in California.
The study predicts that some groupings of bird species will move together while others will shift separately. Many birds will move north out of the hot, dry Central Valley or shift their ranges closer to the coast. Others will move to higher elevations in the mountains, searching out lower temperatures, moisture and prey, Stralberg said.
Altered ecosystem
“They’ll be trying to adapt,” Stralberg said. “The problem is they may or may not adapt.”
Scientists have long predicted major changes in the ecosystem as a result of climate change. Reduced snowmelt is expected to change the types of trees and vegetation and have lasting impacts on birds, animals, insects and even the microscopic pathogens that infect them.
The study is part of a modeling effort that will eventually include analysis of up to 300 bird species in California. Stralberg said she hopes the work inspires a more collaborative effort to protect ecosystems instead of just individual species.
“It’s not a fair playing field, so we should try to intervene,” she said. “There may be things that we can do to help more species survive.”