Citizen Scientists Save The Birds

[two_third] Citizen Scientists Save the Birds by Sue Caskey (February 2017, unpublished, word count 830)

I can hear the song, clear, high pitched, three short cheeps, about twenty feet up in the silver maple at the end of my street. It’s a cardinal; there’s nothing like that almost-out-of-human-hearing peep peep peep. I find it not in the tree, but in the tall shrub to my left. With a great sense of accomplishment, I add the cardinal to the eBird smartphone app on my phone, even though it’s a pretty common bird. There’s something about adding another bird to my list that gets my competitive spirit going. I start down the block, and – wait – is that a robin?
Bird watching, sighting birds in their native habitats, is a hugely popular hobby worldwide. The National Audubon Society, the leading bird advocacy organization named after the famed naturalist John James Audubon, estimates that there are 46 million bird watchers in the United States. It’s no accident that birding became one of the early citizen science projects started on the Internet. Today, the energy of these enthusiasts is being harnessed for science.

Taking advantage of this broad appeal was behind the beginning of the Great Backyard Bird Count, started in 1998 between Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Audubon and Bird Studies Canada. Every year over President’s Day in February, the public is invited to join in a national bird count right in their own backyards, and submit their bird sighting information to Cornell by uploading into an electronic database online called eBird.

eBird collects bird sighting “checklists” from bird watchers in the United States, Canada and now internationally, in countries such as Japan and India. During the GBBC weekend, tens of thousands of citizens help collect data about bird populations, bird health and patterns of migration. The GBBC is a stellar example of what is now referred to as “citizen science” even though it began well before that was a commonly used term. In fact, it started well before the Internet had gained massive popularity, and smartphones were a futuristic fantasy.

“We thought this Internet thing might be a good way to try to collect bird data from all over the country,” says Pat Leonard, Outreach Director and Coordinator of the Great Backyard Bird count for Cornell Lab. “It’s difficult for scientists to collect this kind of broad based data in this volume, which is where the GBBC comes in.” says Leonard. “This data is now being used worldwide for important work that can only be done with the data collection by non-scientists.”

One example of how the Ebird database has helped with conservation efforts is the program run by Ducks Unlimited, and conservation organization. The program works with rice farming industry around the US to pay rice farmers to flood their fields in winter. Over 700,000 acres of harvested rice fields remain flooded to help waterfowl during migration, since the birds are attracted to the fields for the abundance of food. This has been especially beneficial in drought-stricken areas of the southern and western United States. It was data collected using eBird that showed the migration patterns matched the locations of the rice fields. In California, for example, these flooded fields provide 50% of the food resources needed by migrating waterfowl.

Every year, tens of thousands of bird watchers, students, families, scout troops and many others get involved each spring to collect the data. “We find that bird watchers get excited when they know the data will be used to help bird populations” says Leonard. It’s a combination of relying on people’s natural love of the natural world, and their willingness to help further the goals of conservation and natural science.

Cornell promotes the GBBC with a massive public relations effort informing the public about the upcoming project, using many online tools such as information packets, downloadable posters, contests for photography and highest number of bird sightings. Their website is fun and informative, with training videos, maps of species, and a real time submission map that shows where bird sighting data is being submitted to eBird around the world. With tools like these, it’s easy to see why so many people are excited to be involved. Cornell Lab estimates that over 400,000 citizen scientists engage with them each year to collect bird sighting data, with millions of submissions each month through eBird.

Participating for the first time, I thought it was fun to send in my data, even though it was mostly for “ordinary’ birds. There were plenty of house wrens which have taken over my neighborhood (I counted 27 of them), three robins, a pair of mourning doves and two pileated woodpeckers. I know there were others I didn’t find, but it was fun to know I was one of thousands out that day around the world, all working to keep bird populations healthy. The urge to keep adding new “finds” to my list was kind of addicting. I think I’ll practice a little more between now and next February, joining in as one more enthusiastic “citizen scientist”.

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