Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Beth: Citizen Scientist is on the case!

Earth Day Greetings, fellow Earthlings, and happy Earth Day! I hope you have all had a chance to reflect upon what a precious thing our planet is, and think of ways to make it a better place for all of us.

I have had a website tucked away for a little while, and hadn't gotten around to checking into what I needed to do. After listening to President Obama's speech about volunteerism yesterday before he signed the bill to increase funding and numbers for Americorps, I remembered the website and signed up.

Audubon birds It's called the North American Phenology Project, and is run by the U.S. Geological Survey. The website defines phenology as "the scientific study of the relationship between natural phenomena (flowering, breeding, migration) and climatic or seasonal changes." In 1881, a guy named Wells W. Cooke started the program, which utilized observers to track bird sightings and migration patterns throughout North America and part of the West Indies on Migration Observer Cards. At its height, the program had 3000 participants, but by the mid-20th century, participation had declined to the point where it was shut down in 1970. In the course of its existence, over 6 million cards were collected and housed in the program's offices. They had been almost forgotten, but the new director of the program decided to scan each hand-written (or sometimes typed) card and enter them into a database.

Audubon birds2 Why does this matter? By looking at migratory patterns and historical weather data, it can be shown how climate change affects migration, and important information can be discovered about how global climate change impacts bird populations. Why participate? It's easy data entry, and it's incredibly fun and interesting. [Disclaimer: Your results may vary. The reactions of the blog author may not be typical for all users.] It's on the verge of being addictive, and I've entered dozens already.

It's also a bit of a challenge at times. There are certain codes for first sighting, when it became a common sighting, last sighting, etc. It's making me remember or figure out abbreviations for the Canadian provinces. The writing is sometimes Audubon birds3beautiful and meticulous, and other times it's almost illegible. There are times that I have to Google the name of a city or town to make sure I'm reading correctly. The observers' names are usually provided, and I wonder about Edwin M. Anderson in Iowa, or Miss M. Covassee of Texas. What were their lives like? I've transcribed records from as early as 1884, from the height of the Depression, and during WWII. I love seeing that birding has been the pursuit of many people, for many centuries, and I love it that I "caught the bug," as well. It's fascinating to pull up records of birds I've never heard of, like the Acadian Chickadee.

Audubon birds4 But most of all, I think it's amazing and awesome (in the truest sense of the word) to realize that I'm sitting here, in the comfort of our home, transcribing records of a fellow bird watcher, some of whom jotted down their observations over a hundred years ago. They're long gone, but their observations remain, and I wonder how much of our words, here and now, will remain a hundred years in the future? See my seal over on the sidebar? I made it a while back using the Official Seal Generator, and I still like it a lot. It says "Verba volant, scripta manent," and means "Words fly away, but writings remain." The concept of words flying away seems particularly pertinent with this entry!

Here are a few examples of the records to be transcribed. I know I have a lot of time on my hands, so it's easy for me to do this, but I encourage everyone (especially if you're interested in birds) to sign up and transcribe a few here and there. It's some interesting stuff. I had to laugh at one today. I think it was a sighting in South Carolina of some sort of hawk, I forget which kind. The observer had noted that it was a rare sighting in the area, and then added an additional observation: "Specimen was shot and examined carefully." I know that dissection has a place in science, but I prefer to observe without resorting to killing! (Click to enlarge photos)

Phenology card

This shows the entry form along with the handwritten observation card. 655 is the AOU number of the bird (I forget what AOU stands for), and it’s a sighting of a Black and White Warbler on Long Island in 1910.

Phenology card2

This card lists only the AOU number, not the name of the bird. It was sighted in Savannah by someone named Hoxie, and the numbers indicate “first sighting Apr 13, next sighting Apr 14, most common on Apr 15, 1908.”

Phenology card3

Some are in chart form, and a little easier to decipher, like this one from 1931.

Phenology card4

This is a field report file, in which the species name is listed, but not the common name. These are usually the most detailed, and after entering the dates as best you can, you type in the entire contents of the card.

Phenology card5

This card includes the AOU number as well as the common name. Mrs. D. Bodine saw this warbler in Crawford(s)ville, Indiana for the first time on May 6 (she saw three of them), again on May 8, they were common in the area on May 10, and she last saw them on May 13.

If you do decide to do this, I recommend watching the 15 minute training video in order to figure out how to decipher the codes and where to enter the information. Happy transcribing, and happy birding!


  1. This is fascinating! Erggggh, I wish I had more time!

  2. Really interesting, Beth! Thanks so much for sharing this. I love watching birds, in fact we're going to get feeders this year for the first time. Right now, my only distinction genres are: red, blue, white, gray and brown. I hope to become a bit more sophisticated as time goes on.;-)

  3. I want to do this!!! (I've been to Crawfordsville, btw! -- just a side note) I already do proofing for Project Gutenberg, and I think I could manage to get a few of these done every day, too. I may even have Eler Beth check into it. She's our birder here (of course!). She spots interesting birds all the time and usually knows what they are. Thank you for telling us about this!

  4. I love bird watching, but highly doubt I would have the patience keeping track of all the data. It was interesting to learn about. I'll definitely keep it in mind, for anyone else that might be interested. Thanks for sharing. (Hugs)Indigo

  5. That is very interesting, but it sounds too much like work to me. I'd rather just sit back with a big ole glass of sweet tea & enjoy watching my birds.....or you could just call it being too lazy.

  6. You're quite the researcher, Beth!
    This stuff is amazing. I didn't even know such records could be found.
    But then again, it's not something I ever really ever thought about.

    Happy Earth Day!


  7. Hi Beth,
    Very interesting ... I think the fact that this project links the past with the present is kind of incredible, like you have a bond with people who shared a common interest generations ago.

  8. my DH is very interested in birds...i find this entry quite interesting and am glad you found that website and are doing such a good job at helping and at the same time, learning. It is always great to be able to go back in time and see how those who were here before us lived.


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