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Bird Watching for Science

By Ed Robinson

Photo by Curt Chipman

Do you have an interest in learning more about the world around you? Have you wondered how scientists go about studying the major challenges faced by the Earth from climate change to plastic pollution to endangered species? Many people have a fascination about our world and want to learn about melting polar ice caps or the impact of deforestation in the Amazon basin. Increasingly, people want to lend a hand in the research projects that try to find the answers.

Lucky for us, there is citizen science, which means scientific work performed by members of the public in partnership with professional researchers or scientific institutions. Historically most scientists were reluctant to allow amateurs to become involved in their research efforts, other than as research subjects. But declines in academic research budgets, a surge in mega scale challenges for our world and increased public interest in science have opened doors wide for more public participation.

If you search the internet using the term “citizen science” you will find a huge number of organizations and opportunities for you to become engaged with a wide range of projects near and far. Given the popularity of bird watching, you might consider augmenting your hobby with a scientific effort. There are so many excellent resources out there that you don’t need to be a bird expert to contribute valuable data.

One of the pillars of bird science is the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, located in Ithaca, NY. Founded in 1915, the Lab’s mission is to advance the understanding and protection of the natural world with a particular emphasis on the Earth’s 10,000 species of birds. A highly respected institution with a combination of world class science and teaching programs, Cornell is a world leader in harnessing volunteers to assist professional researchers. The Lab has a global network of hundreds of thousands of citizen scientists who faithfully watch birds and send their data, photos, sound recordings and videos for inclusion in Cornell’s massive database. Each year the Lab uses millions of citizen reports for studies on conservation science, bioacoustics research and bird populations.

There is a long tradition of bird counts by volunteers, dating to 1883 when ornithologist Wells Woodbridge Cooke first organized amateurs to assist in collecting bird migration and distribution data for analysis. The Audubon Society followed in 1900 with its Christmas Bird Count, still going strong 120 years later. Cornell organizes various bird counts through the year including a spring-time Nest Watch, along with a winter-time Feeder Watch and the Great Backyard Bird Count. Participants in these counts are given lots of educational material to help them learn more about the world of birds, and the counts rely upon sophisticated reporting and data analysis.

The Cornell Lab has some wonderful tools including a website and app known as eBird, labelled “the world’s largest bio-diversity-related citizen science project, with more than 100 million bird sightings contributed each year.” The eBird app for your smartphone allows you to report bird sightings in seconds.

Another Cornell smartphone app is Merlin, which offers a vast array of data, photos, recordings and maps related to birds, with packages of bird information for a number of different regions of the world. Of particular value is a tool called Bird ID that helps you identify new birds by answering several questions about the bird and your location, or by uploading photos. It is my favorite phone app and I highly recommend it.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife is seeking new participants in a five-year project to map the distribution and abundance of more than 220 birds that breed within our state. The last survey was done from 1978–1983 so the data is now seriously out of date. Because of ongoing development, pollution and climate change, it is important to have current data about birds in Maine so scientists and habitat management specialists can make informed decisions going forward. Birds play an important role in our ecological systems and they are good indicators of environmental problems. Thus the Maine Bird Atlas project is running from 2018 to 2022 as a major citizen science project. Click here for more on how to get involved.

Volunteers are encouraged to sign up to report bird sightings anywhere within the state. You can be an active participant, or you can simply report on a casual basis.

There is a great deal of information available to help those who are not expert birders, including reading and reference materials, apps and online courses to help you in bird identification. While it can be frustrating trying to spot tiny warblers zipping through the bushes in early morning light, it is quite satisfying to finally confirm the identity of a species new to your list.

We are told that it is important for our health to continue life-long learning, to be actively engaged in our community and the world around us, and to maintain an active social life. Participation in citizen science projects as part of hobbies you already enjoy is an easy step to take to improve your quality of life, and to make a difference in the natural world around us. What are you waiting for?

March 2020