On breaks from his work in the urban wilderness of Prospect Park, landscaper Peter Dorosh often goes bird-watching — and for him, that involves more than just binoculars.
When Dorosh, 48, sees an interesting bird, he text messages his friends in the Brooklyn Bird Club. He catalogs it on his blog, Peter’s Prospect Bird Sightings. Then he enters it into eBird, the Audubon Society’s online bird sighting database to which anyone can contribute, and it becomes a piece of scientific data available to biologists and conservationists worldwide.
Enlisting the public to collect scientific data isn’t new — Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, which harnesses volunteers to count bird species nationwide, marked its 110th anniversary this winter — but 21st-century technologies are transforming “citizen science” into a newly powerful research tool. Casual observers can now help scientists track wildlife, measure rainfall and even classify new galaxies in telescope images posted online. As a rapidly expanding, citizen-generated data source, eBird is on the front line of that shift.
“When you put information in eBird, you know with confidence that everybody’s tapping into it,” Dorosh said.
Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology quietly launched eBird as a tool for scientists in 2002. But it only began to take off in 2005, when its leaders took a cue from social networking sites like Facebook and decided eBird should serve hobbyist birders first, scientists second.
They added enticing tools, like personal sighting checklists and top-birder rankings. After they did, the submissions rolled in, according to Brian Sullivan, an eBird project leader at Cornell. In 2008, eBirders entered almost 10 million observations, up from 4 million in 2006. Over 35,000 users have contributed data.
“We’re collecting thousands and thousands of records every hour on birds,” Sullivan said. “We’re starting to do things we couldn’t do before.”
Unlike the Christmas Bird Count and other formal surveys, eBird collects data year-round. That can help scientists look at broad migratory patterns, Sullivan said, which is difficult with more focused scientific studies.
Citizen data can also help identify important habitats for both long-term conservation efforts and bird emergencies. Two years ago, for instance, when a shipping accident flooded the San Francisco Bay with oil, seabird rescue teams prioritized cleanup sites where eBirders had reported seeing animals just hours before.
Yet some question citizen data’s reliability for research purposes — an amateur birder is more likely than a trained ornithologist to miss a hard-to-spot bird, or mistake a sparrow for a chickadee. Some accuracy controls are built into eBird, though: if a birder reports an unlikely sighting, the system automatically withholds it from the database and flags it for a regional expert to review.
“If you think you saw a harpy eagle in your backyard in Connecticut, you can report that,” Sullivan said, but eBird will tell you “why you’re probably not right.” (Harpy eagles live in tropical rainforests and are about as tall as a four-year-old child.)
Reviewers give feedback to birders who entered suspect data, and that teaching relationship gradually makes participants into more reliable observers, Sullivan said.
“It’s not as good as if we could pay for and send out an army of trained biologists,” said Daniel Fink, a Cornell statistician who works with eBird data. Still, with computerized mathematical modeling techniques, Fink and others can coax useful information from imperfect records.
For example, a team at California’s Point Reyes Bird Observatory is finding that augmenting official statistics with eBird data strengthens their models for predicting how climate change will impact bird distributions.
Despite its growth, eBird is still in its infancy, according to Sullivan. The database only covers the Western Hemisphere and New Zealand now, but it will expand in coming years.
For Dorosh, sharing his sightings with scientists is an important part of the conservation effort that draws him to birding.
“You can’t just go out there and bird — you’ve got to be aware of the habitats and ongoing issues that threaten the birds’ existence,” Dorosh said. “We would like to see birds survive.”