In the weeks leading up to Saturday’s Global Big Day, the eBird team at the Cornell Lab noticed something they’d never seen before.
The eBird smartphone app that has become the standard for filing bird sightings was flooded with new users. That was followed by tens of thousands of fresh checklists and thousands of reports from back yards across North America. In parts of the world, eBird observations jumped as much as 2,000 percent between this April and last.
With much of the world at a near standstill from the coronavirus, it wasn’t surprising that people trapped at home would try birding to pass the time. But the dimensions of surge were so big, scientists guiding the project are hard at work to make sense of what they they’re seeing.
“We’re waiting kind of cautiously before we decide what we can really do with this,’’ said Jenna Curtis, eBird project co-leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “But it’s very exciting.’’
The statistics tell one part of the story: eBird checklists, which birders file to Cornell based on the species they identify (by either seeing or hearing the bird), increased nearly 50 percent over a year ago. Some of the specific elements birders send in, such as bird audios and photos, saw similar or even greater increases.
As a result, sometime this month, Cornell says eBird will reach a whopping 800 million total observations on birds – for a sudden boomlet at the world’s largest citizen science effort.
The other part of the story is how the surge plays out for birds. It’s almost certain to be a good thing, but it will take some time to know exactly how.
Is the quarantine giving birth to a new wave of birders, or will interest fade when schools and stores reopen? Will the avalanche of data lead to new discoveries about species, particularly those closest to where people live? Will the jump in birders strengthen conservation and raise public support for protections?