Washington Post story explores the success of world’s leading citizen science project

Around the world, all sorts of efforts are in the works to protect the many bird species now in decline. This week, in an article for the Washington Post, we take a deep look at one of them: the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird project and its innovative way of researching the daily life of birds.

We hope you’ll take a look at our piece, which you can find here online and is the cover story of the Post’s Health and Science section on Tuesday.

An eBird map charting the Bald Eagle’s travels over the year

The eBird project stands out in several fascinating ways: it’s now the world’s most successful citizen science effort. The project is also the scientific foundation for numerous studies on the status of modern birds, and it’s helping reshape how conservation is conducted. This is is a big part of what our Post story explores.

What’s most interesting to us is how the technology behind eBird does all of this as it’s become a valuable tool to help individuals identify the birds they see and keep track of their own birding lists. At last count, 462,000 people around the world are using the eBird app.

The app is equally useful for beginning and experienced birders. Here’s how eBird works: Download the free app, and then use the simple, mostly intuitive checklists to record the species you find. The app works seamlessly with Cornell’s free bird identification guide app, called Merlin Bird ID, that offers photos, short descriptions, bird sound recordings and distribution maps. Click here for a quick start guide on how to use eBird.

Lastly, the app geo-locates your birds at precise points in time, and with just one click, you can send your data to Cornell’s lab to contribute to its overall research.

For all the simplicity of the app, a highly complex series of computations then swings into action to make the most of data that flows in from all over the world. Cornell has developed computations that blend the millions of data bits with satellite photos and federal wildlife information. In the process, it compensates for user biases and predicts the future paths of the first 107 species in the project. Finally, the Lab turns the data into an assortment of tracking maps, including new animations that lets you watch bird migrations unfold week by week.

Here’s an example of an animation. Click to see the migrations of the Sandhill Crane: 

With changing climate and habitat altering the landscape for many species, the Cornell research is proving to be key to finding targeted measures that protect endangered birds.

The fact that eBird is built on the contributions of average birders is no small part of the equation. As one veteran birder, Holly Merker, told us for the Washington Post story, “I know that every observation I make can be significant. That’s one of the things that drives my focus.’’

Cornell’s Amanda Rodewald / Cornell photo by G. Santos

Cornell’s researchers are acutely aware of how skeptics have denigrated science. It’s become popular to dismiss expertise of any kind — and science, with its association with universities, is high on the list of targets.

Citizen science projects help democratize science by bringing ordinary people into the equation.  “Science and people who collect data are traditionally separate from everyone else,’’ said Amanda Rodewald, Garvin professor of Ornithology and Cornell’s director of conservation science. “This brings it to where they are part of the science. People can be contributors, and they are empowered to help generate the information.’’

Holly Merker / Photo by Jean Hall

Research on the protection of birds, shifts in the environment and, of course, the impacts of climate change are steadily more vital to protecting not just birds, but all life on the planet. The innovations eBird has pioneered will surely be part of finding a path ahead.

As Holly Merker, the veteran birder from Downington, Pa., said of eBird: “Why wouldn’t everybody be doing this?”


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