“The idea is this ‘canary in the coal mine’ concept. We use birds as a proxy for ecosystem health overall: they don’t serve as a perfect indicator, but we think they’re the best. Ultimately, what happens to bird populations will probably end up happening to people, as well.”
This is how Christopher Wood, Assistant Director of Information Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO), describes the importance of this particular measure of environmental data. In the Paris climate agreement, governments around the world committed to combating climate change, which is already changing the patterns of our seasons. Scientists predict that 47% of mammalian species and 23% of bird species have already been adversely affected by global warming, which disrupts migration, destroys habitats and throws complex ecosystems off balance.
Wood works on the CLO’s flagship project, eBird. eBird is an online network of birdwatchers, or “birders”, run by conservationists and information scientists at Cornell University in the US. Users from anywhere in the world submit bird sightings via a checklist, listing the species they see and the date and location of the sighting. The power of the data comes from its aggregation: when these individual sightings are combined, they show the movement of bird populations across the world, alongside rises and falls in a species’ size. Crucially, eBird also reveals when these population shifts happened.
Since its launch in the early 2000s, eBird has grown into one of the richest datasets for scientific use in the world. There are now just under 450 million individual records on the eBird site, all of which are open to the public. eBird is collaborating with 16 governments to set up regional hubs to run the network and manage the data. The numbers continue to grow.
This data could be key in the fight against climate change. Corralling large datasets can help researchers win a clearer picture of large or intricate problems than was ever previously possible. Combinations of different types of data help to find correlations, and predict which places and which ecosystems are at risk of collapse. Through this, it can help us to spot diseases, famines and species decline before they happen.
eBird crowdsources data on a worldwide scale. The birders submit their sighting checklist to the site, which is then kept in a centralised database managed by CLO. When millions of these checklists are aggregated, they reveal the movement of different species across the world in real-time.
“It’s not just a matter of tracking birds – it’s a mechanism of understanding natural systems,” said Wood. “By having hundreds of thousands of birdwatchers around the world entering their sightings, it’s very similar to a system of radar we can use to track when a hurricane is coming. The idea is we can use birds as an early warning system.”
“There are all sorts of serendipitous uses that we within the community can’t necessarily predict”
Birds penetrate nearly every ecosystem on earth. As a result, they show just how the planet is changing. After noticing a stark decline in birds of prey and songbirds in the 1970s, scientists were alerted to the toxicity of the pesticide DDT, leading to a worldwide ban. The same technique is now being used to see which areas are at most risk of damage due to climate change.
By making the data publically available to researchers, eBird hopes it will be used to create new solutions.
“There are all sorts of serendipitous uses that we within the [scientific] community can’t necessarily predict,” said Dr Vincent Smith, the head of the informatics division at the UK’s Natural History Museum and a strong advocate for opening scientific data to the public. “We often generate data in a very specific way for a very specific purpose. Not being able to disclose that the data exists would then limit all sorts of downstream uses we couldn’t have predicted the first time around.”
By combining the bird data with other data sets – for example, climate and habitat information from NASA – scientists are able to find correlations between environmental conditions and bird populations and discover reasons for population decline. They can then use this information to predict future declines, leading to dynamic and cost-cutting solutions.
Conservationists in California’s Sacramento Valley have used eBird’s data to help protect migratory birds. The wider Central Valley is one of the most important regions for waterbirds in North America, which spend the winter there or stop over during migration. Over 90% of the original 16,000 square kilometres of wetlands have been lost to agriculture, urbanisation and droughts. The traditional solution — fencing off a nature reserve and flooding the land — is both expensive and inefficient, as the birds are only present at certain times of year.
By combining the data with information on precipitation to predict exactly when and where conditions would be best, conservationists rented and restored specific chunks of land for the few weeks a year the birds actually need it. Rather than shelling out $175 million to buy the land outright, the same group of scientists worked out that to rent the land at the crucial time would cost, at most, 15% of the cost to buy and restore it.
The results were stark. Shorebird density was five times greater on the rented reserves than on comparable fields in the area, while the number of different species was three times greater on the rented land. All of this was achieved at a fraction of the cost.
Building the birder network
eBird wasn’t immediately successful. It began back in 2002, when scientists at the CLO developed a submission system which could be pinned to locations. With this in place, the eBird team had a means to collect accurate data. But when they started trying to get users on the platform, they immediately ran into difficulty.
“There was basically no growth,” said Wood. “We were getting about 6,000 checklists a month. It stagnated over those first three years. We really thought a lot about the science part, but we didn’t really think about the incentives that individuals would have.”
“It’s not just a matter of tracking birds – it’s a mechanism of understanding natural systems”
The team’s solution was to transform the platform into an indispensable tool for amateur birdwatchers. Users were able to use the platform to manage their data. “Everything from being able to keep track of all your lists – birdwatchers keep plenty of lists: country lists, year lists, patch lists, yard lists – and also building visualisations that reinforce the type of behaviour that we want,” said Wood. “We want high location accuracy, which can show on a map where people have seen birds, and birdwatchers want that too.”
Since the changes were made, eBird has boomed – it’s seen a sustained annual growth rate of 20-40% across its metrics: in participation, the number of checklists submitted, and in the number of individual birdwatchers who submit over 1,000 records a year.
Ruling the roost
There are risks. There is a chance that the data submitted to eBird isn’t accurate. There’s also the risk of “cyber-poaching”, in which poachers use open data to lead them directly to valuable endangered species. To curb this problem, eBird is collaborating with national and regional governments.
These national and regional bodies play a vital role in vetting the data for accuracy, and also making sure that open data isn’t putting bird species at risk. eBird has around 1,500 experts around the world who manage the local eBird databases.
“Their interest is primarily in outliers, so they develop a filter system for every place on earth. They’re able to say what the maximum number of individuals that you would expect for this species at this time of year is. Before it exceeds that value, a message pops up, which says this is either A, a high count or B, a species that’s unusual in this region,” said Wood. Users are then asked to submit a photo to verify the accuracy of the sighting.
“We work with the regional experts in the countries, then we hide or obscure the data”
These experts also assess which data it is best to obscure. Some endangered birds are extremely valuable in the caged bird market; some are in such decline that photographers looking for rare shots can disturb them. Releasing data of their exact location could lead to the numbers dwindling further.
“We work with the regional experts in the countries, then we hide or obscure these data,” said Wood. The sighting is only shown to have taken place within an area of greater than 100 square miles, making it unfeasible for poachers to find the birds. “People would be able to request [the data] when they actually have a good reason to have access to it, but Joe Public doesn’t have access,” said Wood.
(Picture credit: Pexels)