NEWS: Birds Netted Online

Science  29 May 1998:
Vol. 280, Issue 5368, pp. 1319
DOI: 10.1126/science.280.5368.1319a

North American bird-watchers have long supplied ornithologists with data on bird populations, starting with the Audubon Christmas bird counts nearly a century ago. Now scientists are turning to the Web to collect bird sightings from the public, and they say early results suggest a boon for research.

Last fall, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, which until now have relied on mailed-in paper reports from birders, plunged into online citizen surveys with a Web project called BirdSource (birdsource.cornell.edu). The program allows “instantaneous processing and archiving” of data, says Cornell Lab director John Fitzpatrick. That means instant maps (posted on the Web) useful for research and to keep birders interested and the ability to take in much more data than ever before.

Already, several thousand volunteers have helped document an unusual “superflight” year last winter when eight or so species of northern finches migrated to the United States from Canada in record numbers all at once, probably because seed crops in Canada had failed. “We're already writing two papers based on these data,” Fitzpatrick says. This month, the scientists launched a survey to track 51 species of warblers moving north from Latin America.

Some experts have always questioned the reliability of birders' reports “simply because they're not professionals,” says U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist John Sauer. The Web is “widening the pool” to more casual birders, he says, and BirdSource will need to check data quality, for example, by surveying volunteers' skills. “But they're keenly aware of that,” he adds. Fitzpatrick says his group already uses a filter to “exclude records with obvious errors.”

Fitzpatrick thinks this kind of “dynamic documentation” will prove useful for tracking other species over many decades, like butterflies and flowering plants. “There are things we would like to know about populations that are impossible to study through traditional scientific means,” he says. “I'm convinced that citizen participation via the Web can give us huge new insights.”

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