Sure, binoculars and books remain vital tools in the world of “birding,” from hobbyists who watch to ornithologists who study.
But gathering data on our feathered friends in this technology-driven society – and we’re not talking tweets – is paramount for scientists to identify migratory patterns and monitor behavioral shifts, as our climate does the same.
And that’s where visitors to the Fox Valley Park District’s Red Oak Nature Center swoop in.
Recently, staff at Red Oak installed a “Citizen Science Station,” which looks similar to an iPad and is mounted on the wall next to the nature center’s “bird window,” overlooking the outdoor sanctuary. The Citizen Science Station features the Merlin Bird ID app, designed and built by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for the specific purpose of enabling regular citizens to collect and submit data based on their bird-watching discoveries.
“We’re trying to get people to be more observant, to know for themselves what’s out there and ultimately help the scientific community by sharing those observations,” says Renée Oakley, facility manager at Red Oak. “Citizen science is something that encourages the public to help gather observational data for scientists to use.”
The Merlin Bird ID app is user-friendly, and its results are personally rewarding. Once a bird is spotted, users simply trigger the app and answer a few simple questions that come with a series of options:
- When and where did you see the bird?
- What size was the bird?
- What were its main colors?
- What was it doing? (Eating at a feeder, swimming or wading, sitting in a tree or bush, etc.)
Upon completion, and almost like magic, the Merlin app shows users the most likely species based on their location – on that day. But these aren’t wild guesses. The app knows which types of birds are near a user by tapping into eBird – a database with millions of sightings from birders around the world.
“People are really enjoying it,” Oakley says. “They’re using it and they’re contributing to the data and they’re also finding out for themselves what something is, instead of asking. It’s their own inquisitive, investigative way to find what’s out there. Personal discovery is a very big and powerful thing.”
Oakley noted the results of two alarming studies that were recently conducted. One revealed that 389 bird species are now considered threatened in the United States; the other determined that 13 state birds soon will not be able to live in their “home” state, simply due to climate change.
“Part of the beauty of where we are is that we have the migratory highway of the Fox River, so we can see the shifting patterns and the dates that these birds are coming through – and that’s really valuable data to the scientists,” Oakley said. “‘What’s coming up when? Why? How long?’ Citizen science is giving scientists valuable information that they otherwise may not be able to collect every day.”
The Merlin Bird ID app is free and portable, something regular citizens can download on their phones and continue submitting data once they’ve left Red Oak.
“It’s our desire to connect conservation to the community in tangible ways,” Oakley says. “The more we can have people feel engaged, the more they’ll care about nature – and they’ll ultimately care about what they can do to help sustain it. And that’s our goal. It’s giving members of the community the power to have their own ‘a-ha’ moment.”