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BROCHURE RACK

Ninety years of valuable migration data about North American birds is now available online

11/04/2014 10:18:46
news/Jessica_Zelt_BPP_Records

Jessica Zelt of the USGS North American Bird Phenology Program searches the invaluable paper records

Over a million records telling the tale of nearly a century of North American bird migrations have been rescued from obscurity and are being transcribed by an international network of more than 2,000 volunteers, making the records available for the first time online for use by researchers and the public.

The records, which span the years from 1880 to 1970, provide information on what areas of the country birds were spotted, and when they arrived or departed in spring and autumn.  The information is of use identifying how birds’ ranges and migration patterns have changed over time.

The one-millionth transcription was that of a house wren seen in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico, on September 11, 1904 and it joined all the other records now part of the United States Geological Survey North American Bird Phenology Program database.

Phenology is the study of the seasonal timing of natural biological phenomena, such as leafing and flowering of plants, maturation of agricultural crops, emergence of insects, and migration of birds. Many of these events are sensitive to climatic variation and change, and are simple to observe and record.

“This 90-year span of archival data provides baseline information about the first arrivals and last departures of North American migratory birds,” according to Jessica Zelt, the USGS North American Bird Phenology Program Coordinator. “When combined with contemporary data, researchers have the unique opportunity to look at changes in seasonal timing in relation to climate and climate change over a 130-year period, unprecedented in its length of time for recorded migratory data.”

The records contain many stories, from the emergence of introduced European species such as the European starling and house sparrow, to the decimation of species such as the Carolina parakeet and passenger pigeon.

This citizen science programme has welcomed participants of all backgrounds from around the world to help transcribe the data. Volunteers have come from locations as varied as Gunma in Japan, Istanbul and Brussels, although the majority reside throughout North America.

“Just last month, a participant wrote me to say she had transcribed a card by Tracy Irwin Storer, a name she recognised because he had authored her college biology textbook,” said Zelt. “One of the aspects that is so exciting about this programme is that it provides participants with a link to ornithological history.”

Original records were created by many famous ornithologists, biologists, botanists and naturalists, such as Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac, Roger Tory Peterson, who wrote A Field Guide to the Birds, and Clarence Birdseye, the creator of the famous frozen foods.

“We feel that the world is changing and these bird records are providing us with the measuring tape to document that change,” said Sam Droege, a USGS wildlife biologist. “This is something anyone can get involved in exploring since we are making all the records open to the public.”

Anyone interested in participating in this innovative project can volunteer by registering online to transcribe these records for the database.

 

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