This Summer season We’re Serving to Scientists Monitor Birds. Be a part of In.
If a bird is not in a forest and there is no one to see that it is not there, is it really not there?
That, in essence, is the conundrum that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is confronting. For more than two decades, the lab has run eBird, a project that collects observations from amateur bird watchers. It is a successful project: Nearly 900,000 participants around the world have submitted some 18 million lists a year of what they have spotted during their bird-watching sessions. And the number of lists has been growing at a pace of some 20 percent a year.
That has proved to be a trove for scientists to study changes in populations and behavior of birds, revealing “complex relationships between people and birds in ways that we couldn’t have before,” said Tom Auer, who leads the geospatial data science team at the Cornell lab.
For example, the voluminous eBird data has established how the bright lights of big cities draw in migratory birds, especially young ones. And cities, with their canyons of concrete and asphalt, are generally poor habitats for birds. Cornell scientists are now studying whether the diversion leads to exhaustion and starvation, and whether fewer birds survive the migratory journey.
But, as the project relies on the efforts of volunteers, the data does not cover all places equally. “You can imagine obvious places where there aren’t data,” Mr. Auer said. “Mostly because people are drawn to places where they can see the most birds.”
Neglected areas include farmland and industrial tracts. The sparsity of data affects the ability to answer questions like whether a change in farming practices helps or hurts birds. “It helps if people can spread out and can cover wider habitats,” Mr. Auer said.
For scientists, knowing where birds are not is as important as knowing where they are. That can reveal declining populations, shifting habitats or changes in migration.
That is a tall ask, though — a social experiment in asking people to go out of the way to places where there are probably fewer birds to spot.
Mr. Auer also said that the lab would like to recruit not just experienced bird-watchers but also those who are just learning to identify various species. “Having that variety of skill levels actually improves the quality of research we do,” he said.
The newcomers will generally be less observant and make more mistakes, but a lot of errors are caught when Cornell reviews the data, and new watchers can provide a useful comparison to the more experienced observers.
“If we didn’t have beginning birders to compare to expert birders, we wouldn’t really know how good the expert birders were at detecting birds,” Mr. Auer said. “We’ve done tests with our models, where we remove beginning birders, and when we do that, the models perform more poorly than if we included the beginners.”
Our understanding of birds has been profoundly shaped by the work of everyday people. After all, anyone can step outside and pay attention to an untamed world swooping above.
This summer, we’re inviting readers around the world to participate in a science project we are working on with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We’ll be gathering observations about the birds around us, filling in data gaps and giving researchers a clearer picture of biodiversity in places that birders frequent less.
It’s important work. Nearly half of all bird species worldwide are known or suspected to be in decline, and climate change could accelerate this trend. By gathering data like this, you’ll help inform decisions about the conservation and study of birds.
You don’t need to be an expert or have special equipment. For beginners, we’ll provide a series of challenges in the next few weeks aimed at getting you on the path toward contributing scientific data.
If you’re an experienced birder, we have a bit more to ask. We would like you to go beyond your usual hot spots to make observations in areas where data is sparse.
The project will run from now to September. Join us at any time, and connect with a global community of readers, scientists and researchers. Share what you’ve learned. And maybe even discover a new way of seeing nature.
To get started, tell us a little about yourself below. It should take only about two minutes, and sign-up is free.
The next step is to download Merlin or eBird, birding apps from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Click the sentence below that best describes your birding experience, and stay tuned for an email with a complete set of instructions.
Please note that Merlin and eBird are third-party apps with their own privacy policies, and The Times does not control (and is not responsible for) their content or privacy practices.
Frequently asked questions
Can I still be included in The New York Times project if I already use the Merlin or eBird app?
Of course! Please complete the form above to register your participation in this project. You can continue to submit your observations through the apps as you usually do.
Why do I need to register with The New York Times if I’m submitting my data to the Cornell Lab?
Registering will allow us to engage with Times readers specifically.
Do I need to download the Merlin or eBird apps to my phone to submit my observations?
If you are a beginning birder, we recommend the Merlin app as a reference and learning tool, which will also allow you to share your observations with the Cornell Lab.
If you are an experienced birder, you may submit your observations through the eBird app or via the eBird website on your computer.
I have a question about Merlin or eBird, or I need additional help getting set up! Where do I go?
See here for help with Merlin, and here for help with eBird. For additional assistance, submit a support ticket. Or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org with any further questions.
We’re so glad you’re taking part in our summer birding project! Tell us in the comments what got you interested in birding. And if you are just getting started, let us know what you could use help with.