SANTA FE, N.M. — Forgetting to fill your backyard feeder won’t turn your feathered guests into shriveled, emaciated versions of their avian selves.
Birds glean just 10 percent of their nutrition from your backyard buffets, said Suzanne Fahey, a volunteer with the Randall Davey Audubon Center Saturday.
“They scrounge all day for natural food,” she said.
Fahey led a group of about seven bird-lovers through the wooded grounds of the Saturday event commemorating the Great Backyard Bird Count. Birders watch and count the feathered creatures for 15 minutes on any given day through Monday. The center on Upper Canyon Road invited the public to tally birds there Saturday morning.
The count gives scientists a snapshot of birds at any given time, said Dana Vackar Strang, the center’s director of education.
Last year’s count yielded 623 native American species. Novice American bird lovers turned in 104,000 checklists, resulting in a final tally of more than 17 million birds, Strang said.
In Santa Fe, the 2012 count captured 202 birds and 72 species, with local birders turning in 118 checklists, she added.
The national count yielded some surprising trends.
Arctic-dwelling snowy owls and redpolls erupted into the Great Plains and West in the largest numbers ever recorded in the count’s 15 year history.
“I think one showed up in Hawaii,” said Carlyn Jervis, an ornithologist and volunteer at the Audubon Center.
“They depend on small mammals for food,” she explained. “They nest in the high Arctic.
“It’s a fairly regular phenomenon when the small mammal population seems to crash,” Jervis continued. “It’s a natural phenomenon. Then birds that depend on these mammals to get through the winter move south.”
Participants reported Eurasian collared-doves and great-tailed grackles in northern locations, a sign of their continued migratory expansion. Spring migration was already underway for several species, including red-winged blackbirds, sandhill cranes and snow geese.
Saturday’s Santa Fe count included pine siskins, house finches, curved thrashers, white crested nuthatches, dark-eyed juncos, spotted towhees, bushtits, piñon jays, mountain chickadees, robins and canyon towhees.
Eleven-year-old Joshua Wertheim was hoping for a hawk but came because he attends the center’s summer camp. His Santa Fe family hangs bird feeders that lure scrub jays and house finches.
“I like hawks and birds of prey,” he said. “We see a lot at my grandpa’s ranch in Fort Sumner.”
Santa Fe’s Bucky Kashiwa wanted to learn to count animals that refuse to stay still.
“We spent a lot of money on bird food,” he said. “But I could never figure out how you could count birds and not double count them because they come and go. You pick a time window and report the greatest number of a single species.”
A group of about seven bird watchers paused to see a scrub jay dominate a cottonwood tree, scaring off tinier species like nuthatches and finches. A robin fluttered to the top.
“The larger the bird, the longer they will stay put,” Fahey explained.
New Mexico boasts 13 of 17 known owl species, she told the group before a feeder of sunflower seeds and millet. At 7,500 feet, the center sits in the pine-juniper zone.
“If we were in Eldorado right now, we’d have totally different birds,” Fahey said.
Despite a love of all things winged, Fahey had trouble with the classic Hitchcock movie “The Birds.” Most of the creatures dive-bombing poor Tippi Hedren were starlings and crows, she said.
“I love birds, but I don’t want them on you,” she shuddered.
The Great Backyard Bird Count is hosted by the National Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada.