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Three Ways You Can Do Bird Science From Your Couch

Researchers could use birders' sharp eyes to help with these digital community-science projects.

It was a cold February morning in Ithaca, New York, when the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in collaboration with the National Audubon Society, tested the first website devoted to collecting information about bird sightings. From February 20–22, 1998, participants logged more than 13,000 birding checklists as part of what was then called the "Great '98 Backyard Bird Count" and is now the annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). That early effort also paved the way for eBird, which collects more than 100 million bird sightings each year. As with the information collected by the GBBC, eBird data is used to deduce population patterns and inform conservation efforts. 

Across the globe, community-science projects such as eBird and the GBBC motivate birders to hone their skills while also aiding science. Some large-scale annual efforts like the North American Breeding Bird Survey and Audubon’s Climate Watch program have been canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are other ways birders can use their identification prowess while under lockdown. You can find a variety of opportunities at Zooniverse.org, where researchers invite community scientists to help with their nature-related datasets. Here are three bird-focused projects to get you started. 

Penguin Watch

Penguins are sentinel species, which means they are like an early warning system for changes occurring more widely in an ecosystem. If penguins are doing well, the ecosystem is probably doing well—and vice versa. That's why penguinologists have deployed cameras at 100+ sites throughout the Antarctic and Southern Atlantic. Each one captures some 8,000 images each year. Your job is to mark penguins in each photo and, if you can, distinguish the adults from the chicks to help scientists track changes in penguin rookeries.

Project Plumage

From the striking reds of the Vermilion Flycatcher to the iridescent blues of the Indian Peacock, birds are some of the most colorful critters on the planet. To better understand the evolution of color, researchers photographed bird specimens from the U.K.’s Natural History Museum at Tring with a special camera that captures visible as well as ultraviolet light, which birds can see but humans cannot. You help by marking feather patches in each photo, something that computer algorithms can't do yet.

Photo: Plumage Talk/Zooniverse

Wildwatch Burrowing Owl

The Burrowing Owl is unusual for an owl because it nests underground. With their Southern California grassland habitat under threat from expanding development, San Diego Zoo Global researchers set up motion-activated cameras to study and ultimately protect this population. Volunteers for this project flag adults and chicks and describe their behaviors, providing much-needed intel on the birds.

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