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People, Places & Parks Thought Leadership

It Takes a Village: Community Science helps birds and people, too

By Jared Teutsch, Executive Director

Birds are all around us … outside windows, in yards, on beaches, in the woods … wherever we look we can find birds. The world has more than 10,000 bird species, and at least 350 species live or migrate through Georgia each year. So how do scientists keep track of population trends and determine which species are thriving and which might be in trouble? While scientists have many techniques for researching bird populations, one of the best ways to collect and analyze data about population trends and bird abundance is to look at the vast amounts of data submitted by people like you. It’s called community science and anyone can participate.

Community science is a tremendous tool that encourages people to record their observations of the natural world. Participants use basic scientific procedures to record and report their observations, and both the public and the scientific community can share and collaborate on their findings. Each year, hundreds of thousands of community scientists submit millions of observations. And there are so many different ways to participate depending on how much time you’d like to invest. From submitting your observations occasionally to participating in full-day bird counts, there are so many different ways to get involved. 

Georgia Audubon, in collaboration with National Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and others is involved with a number of community science initiatives that not only provide valuable data on bird populations and sightings, but also help people learn more about birds and the natural world around them. From homeowners reporting information on birds in their yards, to those Christmas Bird Counts, or helping with point counts and quail surveys, community scientists of all ages and birding abilities are contributing valuable information about the birds that are, in turn, used by Georgia Audubon and other conservation organizations. 

By far, the most popular and frequently used community science tool is eBird (https://ebird.org/home). Managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird is one of the world’s largest biodiversity-related science projects, with more than 100 million bird sightings contributed each year from across the world. Birders enter when, where, and how they went birding, and then fill out a checklist of all the birds that were seen or heard during the outing using eBird’s free mobile app in the field or later at home via the website. In addition, the eBird website allows individuals and researchers a multitude of ways to explore and summarize data from observations by the global eBird community.

The longest-running community science program in the world is the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) (https://www.audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count) which began in 1900 and is held each year across the United States and Canada. Volunteers spread out in pre-determined “circles” (a defined 15-mile diameter circle that covers roughly 177 square miles) to count all the birds they see or hear on one calendar day. Audubon’s 123rd Christmas Bird Count will take place from December 14, 2022 to January 5, 2023. 

Georgia Audubon also coordinates the Climate Watch  (https://www.audubon.org/conservation/climate-watch) program in Georgia on behalf of National Audubon Society. Launched in 2016, Climate Watch tracks near-real-time response of how 12 bird species are responding to climate change. This data is used by Audubon scientists to document in peer reviewed research how birds are responding to climate change and shifting their ranges. 

A collaborative effort between National Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab or Ornithology, and Bird Canada, the Great Backyard Bird Count take place during a four-day period each February. During this period, community scientists count and report the birds they find and report them via the eBird database. Participants are asked to count for a minimum of 15 minutes on any day of the four-day event, and people may count birds at home or out in the field. The 2023 Great Backyard Bird Count will take place from February 17 to 20. To learn more or participate, visit https://www.birdcount.org/

Nestwatch (https://nestwatch.org/) is acommunity science project that the entire family may enjoy. This nationwide monitoring program is designed to track status and trends in reproductive bird biology. Participants are asked to find nests (generally in their yards or nearby parks) and to check them regularly to see how many eggs have been laid, how many hatch, and how many hatchlings survive. Cornell provides training on how to safely monitor nests. The information collected is used by scientists to study the current conditions of breeding bird populations and how they may be changing over time. A similar program, Project Feeder Watch (https://feederwatch.org/), asks community scientists to record birds they see at their feeders during the winter months. 

These are just a small sampling of the community science projects taking place across the U.S. Georgia Audubon volunteers and community scientists also conduct Breeding Bird surveys, Bobwhite Quail surveys, and take part in the Project Safe Flight Program researching bird-building collisions. 

There are so many ways in which to get involved. But, together these programs collect consistent information across large geographic areas over long periods of time that scientists can use to reveal how birds are affected by habitat loss, pollution, disease, climate, and other environmental changes. These insights, in turn, inform conservation plans and key actions to protect birds and habitats. Find a project that’s right for you, and join the Community Science movement today!


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