Birding gone social - with WildLab

The longest running citizen scientist project, entitled the Christmas Bird Count (CBC), was started 111 years ago by ornithologist Frank Chapman. As a less destructive version of the massive annual bird slaughter known as the Christmas “Side Hunt,” it began with 27 men scouting 90 types of birds in 25 locations. In 2010, the CBC had grown to include 60,000 participants throughout the U.S. who noted 2,300 species comprised of 50,000,000+ birds. While a feel good activity for the whole family, the data collection is really quite valuable. Audubon Society and other organizations use data in this wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations – and to help guide conservation action. In fact, the EPA now uses the data as one of the 24 indicators of climate impact.

As indicated by the popularity of the CBC, bird watching happens to be one of the fastest growing hobbies in America. In fact, 1/3 of Americans would consider themselves birders. As a result, it’s become a perfect entry point to get people excited about nature and science – and to make science social, explained naturalist and educator Gabriel Willow yesterday at Social Media Week’s Research Gone Social: Leveraging the Web to Advance Scientific Discovery session. “The connection between scientists and technology can create a bridge for making science more accessible.”

Leveraging the growing popularity of bird watching and people’s increasing comfort with social media tools, Willow created WildLab, which uses iPhones as mobile data collection devices to gather information about birds and other wildlife. The app, as well as a five-part curriculum that’s been conducted with 500 students in NYC schools, promotes STEM learning and generally gets people of all ages excited by the natural world. Sightings, GPS data and weather information collected by students – and participating citizen scientists who download the iPhone app – are entered into a database that can be used to better understand and track wildlife. Birders also send their sightings to eBird and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for use in scientific research.

Willow sees the future of WildLab and it involves tracking the migration of birds in real time. Imagine documenting a flock of White-throated Sparrows and watching the flock migrate across the country as other people upload their sightings. It’s only a matter of time.

For information on another citizen scientist project built upon an iPhone app, check out 2010 Social Innovation Fellow Yasser Ansari’s Project Noah.

Image: Albuquerque BioPark

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