February 10, 2023

We are only one week away from the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) and my email has been lighting up with information concerning how to be involved (Friday, February 17, through Monday, February 20).  The following is gleaned from the GBBC news release from January.  GBBC is an effort to tally as many of the world’s bird species as possible over the four day weekend.  Combined with other bird counts, GBBC results help create a clearer picture of how birds are faring, and whether individual species are declining, increasing, or holding steady in the face of habitat loss, climate change, and other threats.  David Bonter, co-director of the Center for Engagement in Science and Nature at the Cornell Lab, said “we do know that half the bird species in the United States and Canada are decreasing.” An estimated 385,000 people participated during the 2022 GBBC and reported more than 7,000 species from 192 countries.

When I looked online, I found the GBBC is a community science project in ornithology conducted annually in mid-February. The event is supported by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society.  Data is submitted online via a web interface and compiled for use in scientific research.  The GBBC was the first community science project to collect bird sightings online and display results in near real-time.  The GBBC was launched in the US in 1998.  Since 2013, the event has been observed by international bird watchers, and anyone can now participate in the event.  In 2015 nearly half of known bird species worldwide were reported.  The data collected during the event is subject to verification by experts to overcome potential shortcomings in the abilities of amateur participants.

The GBBC is not the only program that relies on amateurs.  When a bright purple ribbon glowed over Alberta, Canada, in 2016 the scientists who study aurora borealis (northern lights) did not know it was there.  Reports came in from night-sky watchers who had cameras and the skills to document the aurora, which they affectionately named Steve.  What was different is these hobbyists had a way to share their experiences and data with the scientist.  Aurorasaurus is a crowdsourced aurora-reporting tool built by a collaboration that includes members of NASA, Penn State University, The New Mexico Consortium, and a small R&D company called Science Education Solutions.  The aurora watchers who used Aurorasaurus are an example of the growing influence of citizen scientists.  When they are enabled by computing power, apps, and the increasing acceptance from researchers, they are directly contributing across wide areas of research.

THOUGHTS:  When we talk of amateur participation it should be noted that several hundred years ago all scientists were citizen scientists, either funded by patrons or on their own.  It was not until the modern university system that scientists were required to have advanced degrees.  The scientists who oversee the GBBC rely on the 100’s of thousands of amateurs who compile the impressive results.  If you would like to be one of them, step-by-step instructions for entering your bird lists for the GBBC is available at:

* Merlin Bird ID app:

* eBird Mobile app:

* eBird on a computer:

Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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