How birding’s pandemic popularity is expanding data collection for science

When a freelance photographer recently saw himself with extra time on his hands and no humans to photograph, he turned his lens to nature.

Toronto resident Maxwell Giffen, 29, is one of the many who recently joined birding apps after the hobby became increasingly popular during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

An influx of people like Giffen, who are tracking what they see digitally, is creating new data sources that can be useful to scientists and environmentalists for monitoring bird populations and habitats.

Giffen said technology, including birding apps and social media groups to connect with other people, was a huge reason why he got so involved in bird watching.

“I was obsessed with eBird. I would go on it several times a day since it was also the way I used to find birds,” said Giffen of one popular app.

Apps like eBird, one of the world’s largest databases for bird observations, can assist hobbyists in identifying various species of animals and plants, easing a previously time-consuming and challenging process.

This form of crowdsourced data gathering, dubbed citizen science by analysts, can also help bolster broader knowledge of how ecological changes affect multiple species.

In May 2021, eBird announced that they surpassed one billion bird observations since launching almost 20 years ago. In Canada, the number of submissions to the app increased by 34 per cent in 2020, according to eBird data, underscoring the app’s growing popularity during the pandemic.

How crowdsourced data can help scientists 

W. Douglas Robinson, a professor of wildlife science at Oregon State University, is also an avid user of birding apps. He is involved in a long-term project to establish a high-quality estimate of how many birds there are in Oregon and how their populations are changing over time. 

Increasing the amount of reliable information coming from birders is important when making attempts to track bird populations, he said in an interview.

As part of his research, Robinson and other scientists compared data on the number of bird sightings in one Oregon natural area gathered by eBird users versus professional ornithologists. 

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In a study published in February, his team concluded that the app’s counting data showed significantly lower numbers of birds than what was gathered by scientists.

This could be due to a number of factors, he said, including the fact that birders have traditionally focused on the different species they could see, rather than counting absolute numbers. 

But as new birders learn more about how the data they gather can be used by scientists, he’s hopeful user contributions will grow richer in details and preciseness. 

“It’s about calling the entire community into advancing human knowledge,” said Robinson.

How birders can help

Thousands of people around the world now participate in decentralized projects to record their observations. In Canada alone, the number of people submitting data to eBird increased by nearly 30 per cent to more than 28,000 between 2019 and 2020, according to the team of researchers who built the app.  

A yellow-brown warbler, a species originally from Asia and Europe, surprised birders in April after it showed up in Mississauga, Ont. It was only the second recording of this species in Canada, said Giffen, who was one of the people present at the time.

A sign showing different kinds of water birds in the local area is displayed in a park in Etobicoke, Ont. (Thaïs Grandisoli/CBC)

“That was when it clicked that birding is a big deal,” he said. It’s unclear exactly what led to this rare sighting.

Garth Riley, another Toronto-area resident, has been an avid birder for over three decades. He’s a reviewer for eBird, a volunteer tasked with checking user submissions to the app. 

He saw the recent birding data boom firsthand. “[Because] a lot of them are novices… We [also] get a lot of interesting rare bird reports which are not really there.” 

Like Robinson, he cautioned this can create data gaps if users aren’t thorough when submitting observations.

His job as a reviewer has become more time consuming with more Canadians getting involved in birding, but he is happy to see more data coming in.  

“The whole thing about citizen scientists is that it’s a huge opportunity to know more,” Riley said, “And most people who have an interest in birds and in the outdoors and all that, want to work to preserve it.”

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