Cross Country Checkup

Growing numbers of citizen scientists hunt birds — with their smartphones

Bird-watchers are hitting the trails with far more than a pair of binoculars. Apps such as eBird and iNaturalist are turning citizens into scientists — by helping researchers to better understand bird populations.

Researchers are using mass amounts of crowd-sourced data to monitor bird populations

Julia Wever is a bird watcher from Port Rowan, Ontario. (Submitted by Julia Wever)

It's been part of Julia Wever's morning routine for years: brew a cup of coffee, get comfy by her bay window, then start counting.

She has seven bird feeders in her home's front yard on the outskirts of Port Rowan, Ont., which, even in the winter months, attract all types of visitors.

White-breasted nuthatches, brown-headed cowbirds, a group of pine siskins. Sometimes, more exotic patrons drop in for a bite.

"I didn't used to get red-bellied woodpeckers all the time. Now, I get a pair of them," she said. "I find it very exciting."

A red-bellied woodpecker is pictured at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Frank Miles/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Instead of merely recounting these sightings to her community of birding friends, the homemaker and mother of two uploads what she spots to an online site called Feeder Watch.

She has been recording all the species she sees, how many there are, what food attracted them, and notes any hawks or other predatory birds attracted by birds at her feeders.

"It's a snapshot over the years. To me, with climate change and the other things happening in the environment, I think it's more important than ever."

Wever is not only an avid birder. She's part of a growing number of citizen scientists: volunteers passionate about birds and all kinds of animals across Canada who are logging massive amounts of data.

That data is proving invaluable to biologists in their research and conservation efforts.

Powerful and significant data

Crowd-sourced data collection in the birding community is nothing new. It dates back to 1900 when Frank Chapman, an American ornithologist, figured it was wiser to count birds than kill them.

He founded what's now known as the annual Audubon Christmas bird count, which rallies the efforts of tens of thousands of birdwatchers across North America to build a widely-respected bird census.

But smartphone technology has caused citizen science to blossom around the globe, according to Jody Allair of Bird Studies Canada, which has 40,000 people participating in it's citizen science program.

"Volunteers are really interested in trying to make a difference and trying to help … so that researchers can answer some big conservation questions," Allair said.

Jody Allair is a birder and manager with Bird Studies Canada. (Submitted by Jody Allair)

Apps such as Merlin Bird ID, eBird and iNaturalist are allowing birders and naturalists to enter critter sightings instantaneously from anywhere in the world.

Researchers, in turn, are getting better at harnessing the enormous amount of data citizen scientists are providing by designing targeted programs to monitor bird and animal population trends.

"They're collecting more powerful and significant data than any researcher could," said Allair.

The crowd-sourced data can lead to significant change.

Scientists have long known whip-poor-will populations in central Canada are disappearing as a result of habitat loss. But volunteer-generated data about the oft-heard, but seldom seen, nocturnal bird collected over two decades provided hard evidence of how rapidly they are in decline.

That lead to the iconic bird being declared a species at risk in Ontario in 2009.

Allair also says Bird Studies Canada has a waiting list of citizen scientists keen to tromp about in the woods of northern Ontario late at night to help record owl behavior. Owls are notoriously difficult to count, because they roost in secretive locations during the day.

The nocturnal owl surveys are allowing scientists get a better handle on how owls are being impacted by logging practices.

Building connections to nature

In the past, old-school birders flipped through the pages of species identification guides such as Sibley's Guide to Birds when stumped by a sighting. Now, advances in technology are helping make animal and bird counting even more precise.

Nature apps are using artificial intelligence to automate animal recognition, which Allair says allows for a user to determine exactly what they are a seeing merely by uploading a photo of a cool butterfly or bee.

"All of the sudden, it's eye-opening for the general public, like 'I can learn more about what's in my backyard,'" said Allair.

Jody Allair leads a group of birders on a hike. (Submitted by Jody Allair)

Julia Wever recalls a recent walk with her dogs when she recognized a pair of scarlet tanagers, which she'd never seen in her area. She also heard what she thought was a red-eyed vireo, a rarity for her.

"I was able to bring it up on the phone and make sure that I was understanding that call correctly," said Wever.

For a society that's increasingly disconnected from the natural world, says Allair, the act of collecting scientific data can help foster deeper passions for animals and nature.

"It is more than just an exercise in identification, it's building connection to nature," said Allair.

"These kinds of encounters will hopefully get people wanting to learn more about that animal and nature, and hopefully adopt a conservation ethic out of it."


Sunday, July 1, 2018, on Cross Country Checkup: your unexpected wildlife encounters. Join us at 4 p.m. ET (1 p.m. PT) and share your story.

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