October 22, 2014

Cornell Bird Identification Project Aids Researchers

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FeederWatch — an annual winter project led the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that enables participants to submit identifications of birds in United States and Canada — will kick off its online survey on Nov. 8.

According to Emma Greig, project leader of the program, the FeederWatch database answers questions about “where birds are moving and how populations are changing.”

“We can take counts from Florida in 2014 and compare them to counts from Oklahoma in 1997,” Greig said. “This is really the way to make comparisons between species and populations across these big spatial and temporal scales.”

FeederWatch was created in 1976 by Bird Studies Canada — a non-profit organization concerning bird habitats and their conservation — and was joined by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in 1986 to expand the program to the United States.

Since then, the project has contributed to different aspects of bird research, including the discovery of the House Finch eye disease in the 1990s, according to Greig.

“The disease was first observed around Washington D.C. and then spread throughout the east in House Finches and now it [has] moved into the western states,” she said. “FeederWatchers helped track the spread of this disease by reporting where they saw it and also where they saw house finches that were free of symptoms.”

Anybody can submit photographs of birds and their identification to the website, Greig said.

“Participants pay a small fee to join, and this fee has supported the project and kept it running for so long,” she said. “In exchange we send materials to help them learn how to feed their birds properly and materials to help them identify species they’re likely to see.”

According to Greig, approximately 20,000 people are signed up for the program. For this reason, she said the FeederWatch website has a “meticulous review system” to check the accuracy of the identifications and communicate with the citizens who submitted them.

“It’s such a huge data set but we still want to make sure that it’s as accurate as possible,” Greig said. “If an observation is unusual because it’s a bird that shouldn’t be in a particular location at a particular time, a record will pop up in our review panel as a flagged record.”

Participants whose records are approved will have their name listed as the source of the picture, according to Emily Waldman ’16, who joined the FeederWatch team this semester to assist with the review process.

“I think that it’s a great incentive to improve your identification of bird species,” Waldman said. “My favorite part, by far, is when participants do find a rare bird in their area,”

Waldman said she thinks the project is beneficial for many areas of research.

“I think this project is very important not only for the Lab and data collecting, but it provides very unique information on bird migration, habitat and number of species in the area,” Waldman said. “They are obviously very important to study for the environmental changes and biomes.”

Greig said she encourages all Cornellians interested in birds to take part in the project.

“People of all experience levels can sign up to participate in the project,” Greig said.