'BirdSource' Website For Citizen-Science Data

February 14, 1997

SEATTLE , Wash. -- To the legions of amateur bird-watchers making observations across North America, the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology say: Nest your birds on the Web.

For the first time, citizen scientists and professionals alike have a fully interactive place to go -- BirdSource -- to share data on which birds are where and what they are doing there. The World Wide Web site opened for business today (Feb. 14) with demonstrations at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Seattle.

Like a fledgling bird testing its wings, BirdSource is beginning modestly. About 500 "penguins" (online bird-watching guinea pigs) from the 10,000-member citizen-science program FeederWatch began reporting observations from feeders at homes and schools throughout the United States and Canada to http://birdsource.cornell.edu/pfw.htm. Eventually BirdSource, which is based at a national supercomputer center, the Cornell Theory Center in Ithaca, N.Y., will handle much more.

"You will be able to go to BirdSource and ask, 'Where were the Dark-eyed Juncoes in December 1934?' and instantly see a map displaying reported sightings of that species," said John W. Fitzpatrick, the Louis Agassiz Fuertes Director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "You will be able to 'watch' as millions of migrating hawks from North America funnel through Central America on their way to South America. You will come home from a day of birding, logon to BirdSource, and share your checklist with thousands of other amateur birders and with professional ornithologists who need your data."

And if feeder-watchers aren't sure whether they've spotted a Northern Flicker or a Varied Thrush, for example, BirdSource will offer up detailed pictures and recorded calls from those and dozens of other birds, drawing on sound archives at the Ornithology Lab's renowned Library of Natural Sounds.

Constructing a fully interactive Web site to process both historic data and continuously updated reports has stretched the capabilities of World Wide Web applications, Fitzpatrick said, crediting the staff of the Cornell Theory Center for its role. The Web-based application relies on an Informix database server, a Netscape Web server, and Netscape's LiveWire client-server application development environment. JavaScript implementations allow users to proofread their entries and check their identifications. Dynamically generated maps of species distributions will be created using the geographic information systems (GIS) software.

Financial support for construction of BirdSource comes, in part, from a matching grant by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to the National Audubon Society. The site will be co-managed by Audubon and by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

"BirdSource will provide the most current and comprehensive data on the distribution, migratory pathways and population trends for North American birds," said Audubon President John Flicker. "This partnership is a perfect marriage of Cornell's high-tech computer capabilities, the Lab of Ornithology's citizen-science team and Audubon's thousands of volunteer birders collecting data at the grassroots level. "

In addition to the results from Project FeederWatch and other Cornell-based, citizen-science observations, BirdSource will be an archive of data from long-running national projects, including all the Christmas Bird Counts since 1900. These counts, managed by the National Audubon Society, represent the largest citizen-science program in the country, with more than 45,000 volunteers participating each year. The Web site will offer an array of opportunities for citizen-science participation in birding, from simple exercises to the complex, from fun to serious, Laboratory Director Fitzpatrick said.

"An estimated 30 to 60 million people watch and feed birds," Fitzpatrick said. "At this moment thousands of people are jotting down notes about their observations. If they 'jot' them on the Web, we will be able to tune to the movements of bird populations, just like the weather reports track the movements of storm fronts. We will have up-to-the-minute accounts on where birds are at any given moment -- and so will anyone who opens BirdSource."

Emphasizing the value to biological conservation of data gathered by thousands of volunteers across a wide geographical area, Fitzpatrick said: "If this had started in the 1890s when there still were passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets, perhaps we could have saved those birds. Now we can get information about diminishing species, in a form that we can understand and use, while there still is time to help."

The mission of the National Audubon Society is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds and other wildlife, for the benefit of humanity and the earth's biological diversity. The Society is supported by 550,000 members and 518 chapters nationwide.

The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology is a membership institute for the study, appreciation and conservation of birds worldwide. The Lab maintains programs in academic research, public education and citizen science to foster understanding about nature and the importance of earth's biological diversity. The Lab and Cornell University together provide an international center for training both amateurs and professionals in the ecology, evolutionary biology and conservation of birds.

Cornell University

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