How Many Can You Spot with Celebrate Urban Birds

By May 29th, 2014 at 9:36 am | Comment

In ten minutes, record the number of urban birds you observe in your neighborhood; your observations can improve the bird habitat in your community.

Want more birds and bees citizen science projects? We’ve got you covered!

Baltimore Oriole  (Photo: David Brezinski)

Baltimore Oriole
Photo: David Brezinski, for the US Fish and Wildlife Service

Spotting birds in an urban environment not uncommon and these feathered friends have certainly found a place for them in the city. But how are they coping with an environment that is less green and more concrete? This is exactly what a citizen science project from Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology is set out to find out.

The project — Celebrate Urban Birds — started in 2007, after consultations with community organizations across the US, as well as scientists and educators. From the start, the objective has always been to develop rigorous protocols to provide reliable scientific data, but also to encourage a strong educational and engagement component to make it happen in communities which citizen science wouldn’t normally reach.

Participation is simple: all you have to do is see how many birds from a list of 16 you can spot in 10 minutes and submit your results online. Not surprisingly, the team has been inundated with submissions across the country and beyond, from Canada to Mexico, and from Boston to Portland.

Despite this overwhelming response, the team has so far been a bit shy about showing their results, as they feel the project needs enough data to allow a reliable analysis. The good news is that, according to ornithologist Karen Purcell, the driving force behind the project, they are currently deep in analysis and we should expect some news in the upcoming months. “This is an exciting year” says Purcell, “because of the fact that we can take a look at the data and we’re going to be able to really understand what’s going on”.

The interesting part is that they’re not just looking at birds. “We’re looking at both the people factor and the community factor, in addition to the bird factor”, says Purcell. This is exactly what differentiates this project from other citizen science projects, as it is as much about the science as it is about the participants and their communities. In fact, although participants can join as individuals, it is through the links with community partners that the project thrives. “We work a lot with organizations that have community events, and that engage participants in the citizen science component, so that’s a big way in which we reach out”, says Purcell.

Very generously, “Celebrate Urban Birds” awards mini-grants to participating organizations, not only to help them develop ways for their members to learn about bird identification and submit their observations, but ultimately to improve bird habitat in the community. This approach “lets us reach a big variety of ages, people that have not participated in this kind of thing before, and the idea in terms of making it appealing towards that audience, is to create something that is useful in the community”, says Purcell.

Ruby-throated hummingbird.

Ruby-throated hummingbird.

Nothing was left to chance and this community focus is also strongly reflected in the list of 16 focal species which participants need to spot. They’re characterized by a strong urban presence throughout the US and further afield, but most importantly as the project deals with novice bird spotters, it includes some species people are likely to see, allowing them to engage with the project.

The list also contains some species chosen for conservational reasons, such as orioles and brown-headed cowbirds, and the team hopes to add more to the list. Top of the wish list at the moment is the hummingbird, which is both a great urban bird to get people to fall in love with bird spotting, and it’s also an important species due to their impact as pollinators.

The project is ongoing, and you can submit your results at any time. So, why not grab your binoculars and see how many birds you can spot in your neighborhood?

Resources: Celebrate Urban Birds Official Site

Images: Wikimedia Commons (Baltimore Oriole, Hummingbird)


Dr. Alex Reis is a freelance science writer, with a particular expertise in the field of biology and genetics. She holds a degree and MSc in Animal Science, topped up with a PhD in Embryology. In a ‘previous life’ as a researcher, she worked in the field of cell and molecular biosciences and published various scientific manuscripts including in Nature. Nowadays, however, she spends most of her time reading and writing science articles for several news outlets. Recent work includes articles published in The Munich Eye, Decoded Science, United Academics Magazine, BitesizeBio and Science NOW. After moving around the UK for a while, she now lives in the Highlands of Scotland. When not working, she can be found trying to get friendly with the ‘locals,’ from deer to seals, otters or even sea eagles.

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