When Tom Cleveland was a boy, he was fascinated with nature.
He made picture books for his mother of the birds he saw. He brought home animals he found in the woods near their Wisconsin home. He even tried to save an injured night heron and a great horned owl that had been hit by a vehicle.
“We had an old garage, and I could always find a cage to keep them in,” said Cleveland, of Cedar Rapids.
That love of animals and nature continued into his adult life, where Cleveland is a volunteer naturalist and land steward at the Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids.
Among his favorite things to do are helping with the center’s maple syrup-tapping demonstrations.
“We want to develop what I call future Champions of Nature,” Cleveland said. “When I’m working with the kids, I tell them, ‘You can all be scientists.’”
Cleveland, who retired in 2015 from Rockwell Collins, also spends his winters assisting with the center’s Project Feeder Watch.
The program, a joint venture between the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York and Bird Studies Canada, recruits nature centers and backyard birders to periodically count the birds they see at their feeders from November to April. The counts help scientists track long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance in North America.
A board in the nature center’s bird-watching room lists the names and pictures of the 16 birds that volunteers are watching for this winter, including red-headed woodpeckers, blue jays and northern cardinals. Volunteers note every time they spot one of the birds and submit the information to the Cornell database.
“You just need an interest in birds,” Cleveland said. “There’s a cheat sheet for people if they need help identifying birds with their pictures. … After a while, you really start to notice their different features.”
Volunteers also record any unusual events, such as when a hawk swoops down and captures a bird or when a young coyote chases a rabbit near the feeders. Such events help explain low numbers of visiting birds on a given day.
“It’s a great place just to come sit and watch,” Cleveland said. “Last year, when it got really cold, there was a pair of bald eagles nesting nearby. One day we had six deer come by at the edge of the woods.”
Cleveland said the numbers are collected in the winter because birds visit the feeders more often when their natural food supplies are lower.
People interested in the program don’t need any special knowledge of birds to participate, Cleveland said.
“Anyone can do it. If you have a feeder in your backyard, you can do it,” Cleveland said. “Just get a lined notebook, and you can become a citizen scientist.”
Cleveland puts out suet feeders at his home, where downy woodpeckers and white-breasted nuthatches come to feast. While he faces the common problem of thieving squirrels, he doesn’t mind.
“I like watching them, too,” he said.
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Anyone interested in assisting at the Indian Creek Nature Center can meet in the bird-watching room from 9 to 11 a.m. Tuesdays and noon to 2 p.m. Wednesdays through February. For more information on Project Feeder Watch – including lists of the top birds in North America for a given year and how to help with the counts – visit feederwatch.org.