112-Year-Old Crowd-Sourced Science Project Tracks Climate Change Effects

For 112 years, National Audubon Society has called on sixty thousand bird watchers in the world to help gather information on bird population and migration patterns. People are seeing with their own eyes that as the temperature of the planet increases, birds are moving farther north. In this New York Times article below, David Yarnold, president of Audubon and ecoAmerica director, says that this northern migration, which has increased since the Industrial Revolution, is a glaring sign we need to reduce carbon emissions and also take steps on adaptive management by preparing for the irreversible effects climate change is already causing to habitats and species.

 
Crowd-Sourced Science, 112 Years and Counting

Cross-post from Dot Earth

by Andrew Revkin


 

A scissor-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus) photographed in the 111th bird count in Alafia Banks, Fla., by Bill Pranty


 
Crowd-sourced science has a 21st-century feel, nicely described in a recent feature by Boston Globe science writer Gareth Cook. But there’s one such project, involving tens of thousands of amateur nature observers, that’s been under way for 112 years — the annual Christmas Bird Count of the National Audubon Society.
 
The results, collated year by year, offer a window on trends in the abundance and range of species ranging from the snow bunting to the sandhill crane. You can sift or graph the information by species or region. Here’s a brimming bibliography of studies using the bird count data. [8:42 a.m. | Insert | Rebecca Deatsman provides details on how the counts work in a guest post at Culture of Science.]
 
Below you can read a Dot Earth “postcard” in which David Yarnold, the president of the society, recounts his experience counting bald eagles along the Hudson River during this year’s count, which began on Dec. 14 and ends Thursday.
 

Rising before dawn had its rewards this past Monday, as my daughter, Nicole, and I joined tens of thousands of Citizen Scientists across the continent to count birds as part of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count. From the Arctic Circle to South America, volunteers flock to more than 2,000 “count circles” to ensure the same areas are counted every year.
 
This, almost unbelievably, is the 112th year. Begun in December of 1900, Audubon’s CBC is the world’s oldest crowdscience project. It was a model for crowdsourcing before the Internet was even an idea. Our circle, a 15-mile-wide dot just north of Manhattan, was centered around Hastings on Hudson and Dobbs Ferry.
 
We were led by the McIntyre brothers, David and Lawrence, birding in this area for 33 years. They continue a holiday tradition which shaped the legendary Roger Tory Peterson, a member of the Bronx County Bird Club, when he was still a teen.
 
My daughter, Nicole, 15, has had her life enriched by birds since I became president of the National Audubon Society in 2010, but this is her first CBC. Also joining our group was actress Jane Alexander, with her 8-year-old grandson who is learning to bird — and can even bird a bit by ear. He’s been birding since he was 2 years old, but is already wise enough to know birds are often heard rather than seen.
 
It was about 7 a.m., just getting light when we saw a couple of juvenile bald eagles along the banks of the Hudson River. The rebound of the bald eagle from the brink of extinction ranks among the greatest victories of conservation in this country.
 
Nearly decimated by DDT, this species showed us all that that the Endangered Species Act works, and environmental stewardship has priceless rewards. In every state, parents and grandparents can point to the sky and share a moment of wonder as a bald eagle soars overhead. It was Audubon’s CBC data, from 1967 to 2006, that documented the species’ rebound. The American bald eagle was removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007. Now they soar over the Hudson River Valley, and by 7:30 in the morning, we were thrilled to see a adult lit by sunrise. By the end of the day, a new record had been set for bald eagles counted in the circle: a total of 8, compared to the previous high of 4.
 
As we ventured into the hills around Hastings on Hudson, Nicole was among the first to spot a Carolina wren, one of 83 seen during the day. As their name suggests, the Carolina wren belongs in the South, but Audubon count data has documented that many species have been moving their ranges north an average of a mile per year, for decades. In the debate on climate change, birds have already voted with their wings. Two years ago, Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change analysis revealed that 58 percent of the species seen during the count were showing up significantly further north than 40 years ago—right in line with charted temperature increases.
 
In addition to serving as another rallying cry to reduce carbon emissions and repower America with clean, efficient energy, this disturbing finding added new urgency to “adaptive management” conservation planning. That’s using population trend data and GIS mapping to predict what habitats and species are at greatest risk from climate disruption’s inevitable impacts. With that knowledge, Audubon can redouble efforts to protect remaining habitat. Whether the habitat is in a circle such as this in the beautiful Hudson River Valley, or in New York’s Central Park, having a green oasis of nature, with clean water and clean air, is as important for people as it is the birds.
 

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