Help Protect Birds through Citizen Science!

Are you an amateur birdwatcher? Do you have a birdfeeder in your backyard? If so, have you ever thought about contributing to citizen science?

Citizen science is a type of PPSR, or public participation in scientific research. PPSR often focuses on issues that require data to be collected and processed over a long period of time or a wide geographical area. It allows scientists to access more observations and different types of observations than traditional scientific research. For these reasons, PPSR can be very useful to scientists in the study of birds.

There are several citizen science projects you can contribute to in Ontario. Here are a few examples:

The Great Backyard Bird Count was the first online citizen science project to collect data on wild birds. Since its launch in 1998 more than 100,000 people have taken part in the four-day count each February. Participants record the species and number of birds they see for at least 15 minutes at a particular location, and enter their data into an online form. In 2014, an estimated 142,000 people in 135 countries participated in the bird count and almost 4300 bird species were recorded.

A similar and complementary citizen science project is Project FeederWatch. Participants are asked to count birds that visit feeders in their backyard, nature centre, community area, or other locale. Project FeederWatch runs throughout the winter from November to February. “FeederWatchers” all over North America count birds over two consecutive days, once every two weeks.

There are also various Christmas Bird Counts that take place between December 14th and January 5th. These are organized one-day events and quite a few occur annually in Southern Ontario. They take place in a 24km diameter circle that stays the same each year, at over 2000 locations in North and South America.

The Breeding Bird Survey is one of the oldest bird surveys in North America, begun in 1966. Volunteers survey birds along a predetermined roadside route each year in June, the height of the breeding season.

The databases from each of these projects can be used individually or in combination by scientists to study many questions related to bird populations and conservation. Scientists can look at the big picture of long-term bird population trends as well as study individual species and local populations.

Examples of “big picture” questions related to birds include:

  • How will the weather and climate change influence bird populations?
  • How does the timing of birds’ migrations compare in different years?
  • How are bird diseases, such as West Nile virus, affecting birds in different regions?
  • What kinds of differences in bird diversity are apparent in cities compared to suburban, rural, and natural areas?

Scientists can also use these databases to look at individual species and local populations, using the data to define bird ranges, populations, migration pathways, and habitat needs.

The data from these surveys can also be used in bird conservation. For example, data from the Christmas Bird Count was used in assessment reports that added the Western Screech Owl, Rusty Blackbird, and Newfoundland Red Crossbill to the Species at Risk Act. The database was also used to prepare the 2012 State of Canada’s Birds report, the first ever comprehensive picture of the health of Canada’s birds.

If you are a bird enthusiast, it’s easier than you think to put your knowledge to good use. As well as the projects listed above, there are several regional or species specific projects that you can contribute to. Bird Studies Canada is a good place to start when looking for a project.

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