Citizen Science Helps to Inform Bird Conservation

Evening Grosbeak - Photo USDA NRCS Montana
eBird song sparrow abundance map (source: ebird.org)

eBird song sparrow abundance map (source: ebird.org)

A large-scale study recently published in Global Change Biology investigates how different species of birds respond to extreme weather events such as heat waves and drought, the types of events that are predicted to occur with increasing frequency and severity due to climate change. The authors found that common birds are better able to withstand drought conditions, while long-distance migrants tend to fare best in extreme heat, presumably because they are more tolerant of heat due to being adapted for tropical wintering territories.

In addition to improving our understanding of the potential effects of climate change on birds, this study showcases the significance of citizen science in contributing to that understanding.

To perform the study, the authors examined 15 years’ worth of observations involving 109 species of birds across eastern North America, gleaning from more than 830,000 checklists submitted to eBird. Although the quality of user-submitted data is highly variable, the authors say that advances in data science allow for control of noisy data.

Of course, birders differ in their opinions on the influence of eBird. In a column just published by the American Birding Association, Ted Floyd declares that “eBird killed birding.” Personally, I prefer to keep my phone in my pocket and just enjoy the birds. But whatever the effects of the digital age on birding, it is revolutionizing ornithological research.

If recording daily sightings in eBird is not your game, there are other ways to contribute to citizen science. The onset of autumn means it’s almost time for Project FeederWatch (beginning Nov 14) and the Christmas Bird Count (beginning Dec 14).

Participation in these initiatives is another way to contribute to datasets that have proved invaluable to scientists and conservationists studying the dangers facing bird populations in today’s world. Data from the Christmas Bird Count, for example, helped to inform last year’s shocking and groundbreaking report that 3 billion birds have vanished from North America since 1970, as well as the National Audubon Society’s 2014 Birds and Climate Change Report.

Last year, Canadian ornithologist Erica Dunn combined data from Project FeederWatch, Christmas Bird Count, and eBird in a major study of the success of birds that irrupt into unfamiliar territory during winter (it turns out that irruption of birds into new areas — despite its excitement to birders — is associated with lower population densities in the birds’ breeding territory in the following spring). Describing the origin of the project, Dunn says, “I simply had a great dataset and wanted to see what I could learn from it. Citizen science data are great for this kind of exploration, because the datasets are so large and are freely available to anyone who wants to work with them.” If you are deliberating about whether to participate in these initiatives this year, know that the data collected through such projects is indeed useful to researchers working to understand threats to birds and how to mitigate them.

Kate McFarland is the Associate Director of the Ohio State University Center for Ethics and Human Values