Pandemic Bird-Watching Has Made a Data Boom-and a Situation

In the morning in late September, Kestin Thomas stood next to the towering glass facade of the Time Warner building in Manhattan holding a dead bird. The small body was still warm in his hand, but he could not feel the beating of a heartbeat or the soft exhalation that came out. He recorded the death on a data sheet, which marked the time, day, and location. He then put the bird in a plastic bag and carried it home, leaving it in the freezer for a day before dropping the body to the New York City Audubon Society.

“It’s sad,” he said.

Thomas was one of many people who took up birding during the pandemic, inspired by the sparrows he saw on his daily walk. “I realized how beautiful they are and that they live in the city among us and thrive,” he said. He started taking photos and sound recordings, identifying birds with the help of apps he liked. Merlin and eBird. Those entries add information to databases used by scientists to study migration and behavior. “All the observations that people submit, they go to the most advanced modeling to create supply maps for species, to look at trends in their population,” said Andrew Farnsworth, a senior research fellow at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who runs the same apps.

Today Thomas is also a volunteer at the Audubon Society’s Safe flight of the project, which collects different data. The group urged people to keep an eye on New York City buildings during the fall and spring migration to record the number of birds killed or injured by flying out the windows.

Bird watching there boomed during the pandemic, and all the increased interest has been translated into citizen science initiatives that have seen a major shift in participation. Moving into the fall, this army of vulnerable birders gathers a wealth of data on how weather, human movement, artificial lighting, and city infrastructure can affect birds on their journey. Farnsworth explained that while similar Cornell projects have grown each year since their inception a decade ago, the increase in users, downloads, and data over the past 18 months has never happened before. “The timing of the pandemic is never on the chart,” he said.

EBird, which allows birders to see what species they saw – and where – had more than a 40 percent increase in those seen in April 2020 last year. That’s more than double the normal growth of the app, according to data provided by Farnsworth. This February, 140,000 users were logged in, to date the highest number of users in a month and a 50 percent increase over last February. Today, there are over a billion entries.

This is also true for Merlin, which helps breeders identify through photographs, audio recordings, or descriptions of the bird’s color, size, and location. In February, the app was installed on 200,000 new devices-a 175 percent increase from last year-and it had more than 611,000 active users, double the number recorded in February 2020.

EBird is already a very useful database that scientists use to study it bald eagle population, examine the effect of severe weather of birds, and show changing the songs of the species. Now pandemic -era participations are helping them understand how human activity – or lack thereof – affects birds. A study published this month on Scientific Advances researchers at the University of Manitoba used eBird data from the United States and Canada to examine bird behavior in areas that are typically densely populated, such as towns, airports, and main streets. The researchers reported that during the lockdown, bird activity increased by more than 80 percent of the species they studied, including hummingbirds, bald eagles, and cold-blooded eagles.

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