Citizen birdwatchers contribute to science

Once upon a time, there were birdwatchers and ornithologists.

The ornithologists looked down on the birdwatchers for their embrace of birds as mere entertainment and the wasted energy of their pursuits that left no permanent record for the betterment of humanity. The birdwatchers looked down on the ornithologists for their lack of appreciation of beauty and their occasional habit of dissecting the objects of their fondness.

But the birders secretly wished that their observations might benefit birds and add to the body of knowledge. And the ornithologists envied the strength in numbers of the birders.

Today, birders with little scientific training can contribute to science, and scientists can make use of data generated by the vast army of “citizen scientist” birders.

Although the term “citizen science” was not coined until recently, this all began in 1900 with the first Christmas Bird Count. Conservation-minded citizens decided to replace the competitive Christmas hunt with birdwatching. The Audubon Society collated this annual nationwide survey, and it has become an invaluable record of North American bird population fluctuations. A Breeding Bird Survey was added in 1966 to measure our nesting populations, and then the Cornell Lab of Ornithology began promoting various other citizen science efforts such as Project Feeder Watch and the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Some of these programs are education or fund-raising, of limited value to science, but with the advent of eBird — a digital platform into which birders enter their sighting by smartphone — hundreds of millions of data points have been gathered in just a few years.

While each birding citizen may just be out for an entertaining stroll in the woods, scientists can access the data to study year-to-year variation, migratory movements, and occurrence of rare species. Because the data are inherently biased by their non-scientific origins, there are limits on what can be learned from eBird, but in this era of slashed science funding and rapid environmental change, a billion free data points have great value.

The best way for a citizen to help birds is to protect and enhance their local habitats. The next most valuable thing you can do is to contribute money to lean and professional organizations that conserve local bird habitat, such as the Historic Virginia Land Conservancy. Making a holiday gift to the birds, by sending money to their only dedicated lobbying group, the American Bird Conservancy, is another great way to step up for the avian world.

Contributing data to citizen science efforts is the perfect gesture for the birds because it gets you outside in their midst and could help conservation or basic science. A wonderful opportunity is the upcoming Williamsburg Bird Club’s 40th annual Christmas Bird Count. Over 100 birders will spread out on Dec. 17th to systematically survey the area, and 206 eyes are better than 204. To find out how you can put your birding skills to good use for science, visit williamsburgbirdclub.org and look under “events” for the bird count. As a citizen, and a scientist, I hope to see you there!

Cristol teaches in the Biology Department at the College of William and Mary and can be contacted at dacris@wm.edu. To discover local birding opportunities visit williamsburgbirdclub.org.

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