Birds and Citizen Science
Birdwatching is generally enjoyed as an aesthetic pastime with nature‘s bountiful and beautiful feathered creatures. However, there are many ways your ornithological observations can contribute to real science. A sighting of a bird or birds at a particular location and habitat type can be considered to be a veritable piece of data, a small piece of a much larger story. A single list of bird species may not represent a critical contribution to science, but if enough birdwatchers share their personal sightings with professional ornithologists, the accumulation of data may help to provide valuable and interesting clues to bird breeding and migratory behavior.
The Internet has made sharing your bird data easier than ever before. There are both short-term and long-term projects and efforts you can actively participate in. In some cases, you can merely glimpse at the online data for your own curiosity. Who can participate? Anyone who watches birds, from backyards to city streets to remote forests, can help researchers better understand birds and their habits. In some cases there is a nominal charge for materials to get started, but others are totally free; your time is your only expendture.
Operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies of Canada, Project FeederWatch is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other locales in North America. FeederWatchers periodically count the birds they see at their feeders from November through early April and send their counts to Project FeederWatch. FeederWatch data help scientists track broad scale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance. Anyone with an interest in birds can participate in Feeder Watch. Past participants include people of all skill levels and backgrounds, including children, families, individuals, classrooms, retired persons, youth groups, nature centers, and bird clubs. There is a $15.00 sign-up fee for participation.
NetstWatch is a nest monitoring project developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in collaboration with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, and funded by the National Science Foundation. As the name of this project indicates, this effort is all about collecting data and observations on nesting birds; nest site location, habitat, species, and number of eggs, young, and fledglings.
Great Backyard Bird Count
For those desiring less of a time commitment for citizen science, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society have organized an annual four-day event that engages bird watchers to create a real-time snapshot of where birds are across the continent. All are welcome to participate whether you’re a beginner or expert bird watcher. Time commitment ranges from 15 minutes on one day, or you can count birds for as long as you like each of the four days. It’s fun, free, easy, and helps birds!
A real-time, online checklist program, eBird has revolutionized the way that the birding community reports and accesses information about birds. Launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, eBird provides rich data sources for basic information on bird abundance and distribution at a variety of spatial and temporal scales.
In just a few years, eBird has revolutionized the way that the birding community reports bird observations and data about birds. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society teamed together in 2002 to provide one of the fastest growing data resources for professional and amateur ornithologists for accessing information on migration, ranges, abundance, trends, and breeding. As the eBird database and network continues to grow, it will help scientists better answer questions about bird distribution and conservation efforts to help protect their habitats.
There’s no fee to use eBird, but you must sign-up with a userid and password. Once you’re logged in, you can begin setting up your observation locations. It’s even encouraged to enter any hardcopy lists you have from years past!
State Ornithological Records
Rare and vagrant birds that visit your backyard or are observed at a natural area are usually worth reporting. Many state ornithological societies keep records of early and late records by species, as well as unique species that have low frequency or have never been reported in your state before. Such societies generally have a records committee who will critique your observation with a pretty rigid level of scrutiny; therefore it’s necessary to write detailed notes (or take photos if possible) of the bird you observed. Don’t be dismayed if the record’s committee doesn’t accept a rare bird report you submitted. Sometimes even advanced birders don’t quite make a good enough case to be convincing of an unusual bird sighting. With continued experience in the field, and practice with honing your documentation skills, you’re likely to gain a local reputation for being a birder who stumbles upon rarities.
These are some of the ways that any birdwatcher, as a citizen scientist, can make valuable contributions to the science of ornithology. There is still much we don’t completely understand about bird migration. The contribution of citizen science is an invaluable effort to help uncover some of those mysteries.
Article and photo of Red-headed Woodpecker contributed by Mike McDowell, an avid digiscoper, amateur naturalist, and Eagle Optics employee.