Episode 14: Data science in birding: the ebird experiment


Do you want to become a reviewer for ebird? Which bird is the logo of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology? Do you think sparrow populations are declining? What abour vireos? Can you “rent” land from farmers to help shorebirds?  In this fascinating episode, we talk to Christopher Wood, who heads ebird at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Ashwin Viswanathan who is part of Bird Count India and NCF. Over one billion birders use ebird.  How did it become this global behemoth? Hint, it wasn’t driven by America.  How does ebird track and help avian populations, migration and mapping birds. How do different countries use it, and is India really the “global custodian” of so many species including the Common Rosefinch, Bar-headed Geese, or Blythe’s Reed Warbler?

Christopher Wood is the Managing Director, Center for Avian Population Studies and Director, eBird.

Full bio here at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Chris was fascinated by dinosaurs as a child. Now, he says, he has moved to their closest living relatives.

Ashwin Vishwanathan is a Research Associate, Education and Public Engagement at the Nature Conservation Foundation or NCF.  He is a part of Bird Count India which encourage bird watching using ebird as a tool.

Episode Timeline

10:32: Listen for a fascinating explanation of the challenges that ebird faces, especially if the goal is to develop maps for where birds are every single week of the year.  How can the methods of analysis of ebird’s data correlate with other data such as the breeding birds survey.  The bias between how birdwatchers are bird-watching and what they are seeing.

13:00 Patterns of bird movement and population linked to habitat and climate change.  Chris talks about the interplay between forests and farms, and why the vireo population is going up.  Ashwin talks about how certain species has expanded all over India.  Hint: it is India’s national bird.  In that sense ebird is a great “hypothesis generator” as Chris says.

18:00 different in the migration and arrival dates of the Eastern Phoebe and Orchard Oriole.  Ashwin talks about the black-capped kingfisher and how the data helped them realize that it was “entirely a winter migrant.”  

23:00: Which are the top countries that supply data to ebird?

25:00 the link between identification and probability.  Why are some birders able to glance at a flying bird and immediately identify it? It has to do with filtering data rather than paging through a field guide.

29:00 how a remote community in Mexico called Mayan Jays used ebird to attract nature tourists to their area.  The same with Honduras, Guatamala, Columbia.  

34:00 how to get indigenous tribal communities to share their knowledge of nature?

37:00 How do you marry specificity and local context with access and global knowledge. Ashwin talks about vernacular languages for bird names.  Ebird has 42 different languages that it supports and 68 choices.  How to preserve local knowledge and culture?

42:00 Diverse systems are inherently more stable.  How does ebird help conservation.  Listen for a fascinating new idea adopted by the Nature Conservancy, which typically buys land for conservation.  They worked with the farmers of the Central Valley of California where a lot of shorebirds and ducks migrate through.  For example, can rice fields and the flooding that farmers do be adjusted to benefit both farmers and their food production and the shorebird habitat.  Point Blue used ebird data to “rent” land from rice farmers to keep the water in the rice fields.

47:00 how village panchayats are using ebird data for local policy decisions.  How a road in Kerala is named after the orange breasted green pigeon

50:00 Do you want to become a reviewer for ebird? Here’s how.  

55:00 Are Eastern Yellow Wagtails present in India? How do ebird reviewers preserve the integrity of the data?

56:00 how does ebird figure out if you are a good birder or not? How does ebird model data based on bird calls? 

58:00 Do you want to know why your checklists were accepted or rejected? List length is a way to predict how likely it is for a species to be reported. And about the Kerala Bird Atlas.

Listen to this fascinating episode

Links:

ebird, Bird Count India

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