Birdwatching during pandemic has created data boom and conundrum

One morning In late September, Kestin Thomas stood next to the towering glass facade of the Time Warner building in Manhattan, holding a dead bird. The little body was still warm in his hand, but he couldn’t feel the pounding of a heart or the sweet breath of air escaping. He recorded the death on a data sheet, marking the time, day and location. Then, he put the bird in a plastic bag and brought it home, leaving it in the freezer for a day before finally taking the body to the New York City Audubon Society.

“It was heartbreaking,” he says.

Thomas is one of the many people who started birding during the pandemic, inspired by the sparrows he saw on his daily walks. “I realized how adorable they are and that they live in town among us and thrive,” he says. He started taking photos and sound recordings, identifying birds using apps like Merlin and eBird. These entries add information to the databases that scientists use to study migration and behavior. “All of these observations that people submit, they go into very advanced modeling to create species distribution maps, to look at trends in their populations,” says Andrew Farnsworth, senior associate researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who manages both. applications. .

Today, Thomas is also a volunteer with the Audubon Society Safe Flight Project, which collects a different kind of data. The group uses people to monitor New York City buildings during the fall and spring migration seasons to record the number of birds killed or injured while flying through windows.

Bird watching To exploded during the pandemic, and all this added interest has translated into citizen science initiatives that have seen a huge increase in participation. As fall migration is in full swing, this army of bird watchers is amassing a wealth of data on how weather, human movements, artificial lights, and city infrastructure can affect birds as they travel. Farnsworth notes that while both Cornell projects have grown every year since their inception over a decade ago, the increase in users, downloads and data over the past 18 months was unprecedented. “The pandemic period was really off the charts,” he says.

eBird, which allows bird watchers to note the species they spotted – and where – saw a more than 40% increase in sightings in April 2020 compared to the previous year. That’s more than double the app’s normal annual growth, according to data provided by Farnsworth. Last February, 140,000 users logged in, the highest number of users in a single month to date and a 50% increase from last February. Now there are over a billion entries.

The same goes for Merlin, which helps birders identify with the help of pictures, audio recordings, or descriptions of the bird’s color, size and location. In February, the app was installed on 200,000 new devices, an increase of 175% from the previous year, and it had more than 611,000 active users, double the number recorded in February 2020.

eBird was already an extremely useful database that scientists used to study the bald eagle population, examine the effect of extreme weather conditions on birds, and show changes in species songs. Now, the entries into the pandemic era are helping them understand how human activity – or the lack of it – affects birds. A study published this month in Scientists progress by researchers at the University of Manitoba used eBird data from the United States and Canada to examine the behavior of birds in areas that are normally crowded, such as cities, airports and major highways. The researchers reported that during the lockdown, bird activity increased for more than 80% of the species studied, including hummingbirds, bald eagles and barn swallows.

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