Citizen science is about to enter its biggest period of the year with a number of environmentally-themed initiatives now under way.
Perhaps the largest public participation event in Australian citizen science, Birdlife Australia’s Aussie Bird Count kicked off on Monday, taking advantage of springtime conditions for people to spot, identify and submit information about their local birds.
It’s an initiative that aims to record five million bird sightings in one week, with the public invited to spend 20 minutes spotting birds in their backyards and parks.
Participants use the BirdCount app and website to submit estimates on size, shape, colouration and select the most likely bird from a filtered menu.
These sightings are uploaded to analysts at the organisation’s headquarters, who plot the data.
The initiative, now almost a decade old, was started as a joint scientific and engagement initiative by Birdlife to bring bird watching into the mainstream.
The Bird Count fills a gap exposed by trained birdwatchers and specialised ornithologists who focus their work on rare species, rather than birds common to Australian backyards and urban areas.
“We needed to try and see if we could fill-in knowledge gaps for our most common birds and the birds that we encounter every day,” says Sean Dooley, an ornithological writer and head of public affairs at Birdlife Australia.
“Through our social research we also realised that hundreds of thousands of Australians have a really strong connection with our native birds and we wanted to engage those people.”
In 2021, over 600 individual species were identified as part of the initiative – including invasive birds. Ubiquitous species like the Rainbow Lorikeet, Noisy Miner and Australian Magpie are consistently the most-spotted.
But assembling the data so it can be used by professional researchers and experts requires rigour.
Does the data make its way to scientific research?
Bird Count data is retained by Birdlife Australia, but ‘quarantined’ from its existing expert survey statistics.
Rather than informing professional research – particularly given this is less likely to focus on common bird species often sighted in populated areas – the data serves as a supplement to professional observations.
On occasion, scientists have used this publicly obtained data to inform their research, while Birdlife has itself used the surveys to help local councils plan and manage public parks and gardens.
But with millions of observations over the last decade building a robust bank of information, experts have now developed a far clearer pictures of ‘guilds’ of species, rather than individual ones.
A guild is a collection of bird species that are not closely related, but rely on similar resources to survive. For instance, while the commonly spotted welcome swallow and magpie-lark might have diverged from their common ancestor around 35 million years ago, they still require the same resources – insects for eating, mud and sticks for nest-construction – and are often found near human populations.
Such data is useful for urban planners seeking to create liveable human spaces that have a minimal impact on the needs of these bird clusters.
“As we become more certain of the veracity of the data and its robustness, we will certainly be starting to use it as an adjunct, and also combining it with our other research,” Dooley says.
“This is going into its ninth year now. We’ve actually gathered a considerable body of observations and data that is confirming trends and other studies.”
Target five million
To date, more than 100,000 Australians are believed to have completed a Bird Count survey and organisers are hoping to see a high number in participants off the back of strong recruitment during the first years of the COVID-19pandemic.
“The jump between 2019 and 2020 was about a 20% increase,” Dooley says.
“Until 2020, Melbourne and Victoria had actually lagged behind, per capita, in participation in the in the bird count. But with everybody being in lockdown in Melbourne, it really did ramp up – now it’s on a par with Sydney and Brisbane in terms of participants per head of population.
The event runs until 23 October 2022, with the Aussie Bird Count app available on smartphone app stores.