The Edmond Sun

February 11, 2014

Citizen-science project from your own backyard

Sean Hubbard
Special to The Sun

STILLWATER — Everyone has heard the old adage that fingers alone are weak, but when they make a fist, they become a solid, strong unit. Such is the case, too, when applied to research conducted through the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Initiated in 1999 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada, the GBBC is the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and display results instantaneously. It has since hatched into a worldwide data pool of bird population data.

“The point of a citizen-science project like this is that no one checklist is all that important, but a snapshot ofthousands of checklists from all over the world really is crucial,” said Tim O’Connell, associate professor in the department of natural resource ecology and management at Oklahoma State University. “Crowdsourcing biological data like this is a cost-effective and robust way to learn about populations and distributions of wildlife.”

The GBBC asks people from all over the world to submit a checklist of bird species they have identified in a given time, with the minimum relevant time of 15 minutes.

“The GBBC is specifically designed to be as user friendly as possible. If you can use Facebook or have an email account, then you are technologically savvy enough to enter your data for the GBBC,” O’Connell said. “In terms of birding prowess, anyone who is able to identify at least one species of wild bird is enough of a pro to take part.”

There is a button on the data entry form that asks, “Are you submitting a checklist of all the species you were able to identify?” If the answer is “no” then you just click “no.”

“That means you recognized the Blue Jay in your backyard, but you really didn’t know what those little brown birds were so you didn’t report those,” he said.

Last year, GBBC participants from 111 countries counted more than 33 million birds on nearly 138,000 checklists, documenting 4,258 species, which is more than one-third of the world’s bird species.

“Considering just the birds in the U.S., imagine how much it would cost the federal government to hire biologists to survey populations of hundreds of species of wintering birds across the whole country,” O’Connell said.  “Birders do it for free and are happy to share their survey results.”

The collected data are used to help determine priorities for conservation and provide vital information on birds that was lacking before the program started.

“Most of the checklists I plan to submit will come from my cozy, warm living room or while I’m sipping hot tea at my kitchen table,” O’Connell said. “We want data from your literal back yard. That said, you can count birds and report them from anywhere you find them.”

The 2014 GBBC will be conducted from Feb. 14-17. Those interested in participating should visit http://gbbc.birdcount.org/ to register an account and get started.

“The GBBC is a fantastic way to get beginners interested in birds, nature and citizenscience,” O’Connell said. “It’s free, super-easy to enter your data, you can do it anywhere in the world and you only need to be able to identify one species for your data to have value.”