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Mar. 23, 2011

Science for the Birds

by Lisa Gardiner

Click to enlarge images
Birding in Golden Gate Park

Birding in Golden Gate Park (Photo: L.Gardiner)

We looked up at the sky. We surveyed treetops through binoculars. We peered down into fallen leaves, looking for movement. We flipped the pages of field guides. Occasionally, one of us would point excitedly, squelching the desire to inadvertently scare our quarry by shouting “bird!”

We were on a quest to find birds in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Then we would report our findings through a project called eBird.

Started in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, eBird allows people to upload and keep track of bird sightings in an online database. While the initial focus was on birds in North American, eBird recently expanded allowing people to upload observations from all over the world.

The project is designed so that anyone, anywhere can participate. No special equipment is required to participate in eBird, although an identification field guide is essential if you are a novice. A kit of resources called BirdSleuth is available to help educators get students participating.

Our group of park birdwatchers was part of a workshop called Exploring Birds and Citizen Science. Taught by Jennifer Fee from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Megan Schufreider and Helena Carmena from the California Academy of Sciences, the workshop was held March 11 as a part of the National Science Teachers Association national meeting.

When we set out for our short birding expedition in the park, I had no idea that we would spot over 50 birds representing eighteen different species. There was red-tailed hawk that soared high and a little pygmy nuthatch that clung to a tree trunk. A half dozen ravens flew overhead, and so did a gull of some sort. Robins hopped through fallen leaves. Someone in our group excitedly pointed to a hummingbird that was buzzing a shrub.

As we spilled out of the California Academy of Sciences, the park didn’t appear to be overrun by an unusual number of birds. We had walked the same path to get to the museum an hour earlier and I’m embarrassed to admit that I had not noticed any birds at all. Yet once I was looking for birds they seemed to be everywhere. And after our group tallied our list of observations it became clear that there were lots of birds out there.

Heading inside to a computer lab, we learned how to register on the eBird website and upload the data we collected. It was easy. Now that we are all registered, we are able to upload other bird sightings and check out our past sightings too. Anyone with an email address can register on eBird. For more information about eBird, and to sign up to submit your own bird sightings, visit eBird.org and get started.

Why are scientists interested in knowing what bird species are hanging out in your neighborhood? Jennifer Fee mentioned that there are about half a dozen scientists at the Cornell Lab who are looking at the eBird data. They are finding interesting trends that show the patterns of migration and distribution of birds over North America. The bird data, available online, is also used by educators, land managers, ornithologists, and biologists.

Back in the museum, a ten-foot bird skeleton in a glass case reminded me why the data we collected outside in the park could be so important. Our observations can contribute to our understanding of how birds are affected by changes in their environment such as those caused by humans.

The skeleton was from an elephant bird – a species that, for the most part, became extinct a thousand years ago. But small populations of the giant birds lingered in pockets of Madagascar until the 17th Century. How do we know? People saw the birds and reported what they saw.

No, there was no eBird back then. But there was storytelling. Marco Polo told stories of gigantic birds he saw during his explorations in the 13th Century. European sailors also had stories of the elephant birds on Madagascar from as recently as the 17th Century. Once might expect, as I did, that the reports of swashbuckling Medieval and Renaissance explorers would contain more tall tales than scientific data, but it turns out that these stories still contain observations of nature that tell us a bit about the world as it was then.

Today there are many species vulnerable to extinction. Some are loosing habitat as land is developed. Others are affected by climate change or pollution. By making observations and documenting where these species are found and how their populations are changing, we might be able to help some of those that are in jeopardy.

My fellow birders and I only did one small bird-watching expedition in the park that day. Most of us were novices, thumbing through our identification books each time we spotted something feathery and flapping. Yet we were on-the-ground bird reporters. If thousands or even millions of people did the same, scientists might better understand which of our feathered friends are in jeopardy due to environmental change.

Oh, and I should also mention that it was a hoot!

Are you a birdwatcher? Do you add your observations to eBird or another citizen science program? If so, post below and share your experience.
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Lisa Gardiner has a background in several “ologies” – ecology, paleontology and geology. She writes and teaches about nature and environmental science, and also describes the natural world via illustrations and artwork. Lisa is the director of education at the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) where she develops educational resources that help connect people with the natural world. Currently, she is exploring the world of citizen science to help inform NEON’s journey into this exciting area. Lisa holds a Ph.D. in Geology and enjoys exploring the Earth from the tops of Colorado’s mountains to the bottom of the sea.

About Lisa Gardiner

Dr. Lisa Gardiner is a writer and content creator at Spark: Science Education at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. She likes how citizen science and social media get people involved in science and is a contributing editor at SciStarter.com.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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