112 Years of Crowdsourcing with Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count
When crowdsourcing is bandied about as a 21st century invention from the wizards of Silicon Valley, the organizers of the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) have a good chuckle. Audubon has been engaged with crowdsourcing for over a century. However, while the bird count might be celebrating its 112th year, the technology behind it is definitely not.
The goal of the annual bird count, which runs from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5, is to create a census of what species are where and their numbers. Participants are given a 15 mile (24 Km) circular radius in which to conduct their counts. The CBC began in the US but is expanding its reach into South America.
Kathy Dale, of Audubon’s National Science Office, explained to Opinno how the count has and has not changed.
“The Christmas Bird Count still relies on a social network, just like it did over a century ago,” she said. “It’s the original crowd-sourced science effort, so we like to think that Audubon was really ahead of [its] time.”
People have always been the most valuable asset as the count relies on expert observations from volunteers. Now, the participants have access to a digital database and a mobile bird identification app to aid them and increase the CBC data’s integrity. In addition, digital cameras are helping to identify and catalogue rare species. Below are images captured during previous counts.
Dale explained how 12 years ago, the CBC count went from paper only to an on-line database. Once this changeover happened, the amount of analytics that could be performed exploded.
“The online query tools are popular among CBC participants for creating graphs of information over time, and to researchers who use the data to answer many questions related to biology, climate change, and other disciplines,” said Dale. “Improvements in GIS tools have allowed compilers and others to refine the locations of their circles and using a variety of open-source tools, to create customized maps to share with participants as they plan to go out on their counts.”
Dale said that as CBC technology has advanced, major studies have been able to be published based on the collected information.
“Our most recent and illuminating studies using data from Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count are reported in the Birds and Climate Change Report which revealed that many species in North America have shifted their ranges north on average of a mile a year,” she said. This move has been attributed to climate change.
In addition, CBC data has been used in the US State of the Birds Report, issued by the Department of the Interior. In 2007, Audubon performed an analysis of CBC data that resulted in a list of the top common birds in decline, which lead to heightened environmental awareness and increased conservation efforts.
With the explosion of cloud-based data resources and analytics, Audubon envisions, according to Dale, “a much more interactive web presence for Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, enabling the public and researchers to take advantage of graphing or mapping in new ways, and more flexibility to refine their search inquiries.” The Audobon Society is also planning enhanced mapping features that will allow for better visualization and analysis of bird ranges.
The count has become an annual tradition for many. Dale herself has participated in the CBC for 31 years.
As she said, “birds can lead you to great stories about nature, yourself, the health of the environment, and technology is so important in telling their story.”