XIII. North American Bird Phenology Program

Interaction type Government → Public → Government
Trigger event Global Climate Change
Domain Global Climate Change in Bird Arrival Phenology
Organisation U.S. Geological Survey
Actors Federal Government, Academics, Non-Profits, Individuals
Data sets Transcription of historical data cards regarding when birds arrived
Process Historic cards from around North America (1880-1970) are scanned (1.1 million or so), computer program was set up to allow online volunteers to transcribe data into database, computer algorithms are used to compare multiple transcriptions to create validated records, volunteers and USGS personnel, work on validating locations not in gazetteers, observer names, and bird names.
Feedback Transcribed records.
Goal Volunteers are use to enter data and help run the system.
Side effects
Impact of the project Impact to the governmental body
Temporal pattern One-off initiative
Funding of the project U.S. Federal Government
Contact point Sam Droege, U.S. Geological Survey

The North American Bird Phenology Program (BPP), part of the the USA-National Phenology Network, flourished from 1880 until 1970 when lack of funding led to the closing. The project was coordinated by the Federal government and sponsored by the American Ornithologists’ Union. The aim of the project was to record information on first arrival dates, maximum abundance, and departure dates of migratory birds across North America by a network of volunteer observers who played a vital role on its process. During the ninety year history of the program there have been four coordinators who have collected and maintained migration cards records and thousands of observers who collected them. It exists now as a historic collection of six million migration card observations, illuminating almost a century of migration patterns and population status of birds.

As climate changes, vegetation patterns, weather, and other factors impacting bird arrival times also changes. These historic records permit a detailed study of shifts in arrival and departure dates both in geographic scope and detail. The government has housed the historic records and the public provides the transcription of the data. Nowadays, in an innovative project to curate the data and make them publically available, the records are being scanned and placed on the internet, where volunteers worldwide transcribe these records and add them into a database for analysis. In other words, the scope of the current project is to update authoritative spatial data sets for environmental monitoring through citizen science. The records are now being digitized and with help from citizen scientists the information will be combined in an online database accessible to the public. Citizens located at the Baltimore-Washington area may work as office-volunteers while all other participants may digitize data online. Training is provided with detailed information via the website and email assistance. A series of maps indicating migratory birds across North America over decades has been designed with the material digitized by the volunteers.

The project has recorded millions of transcriptions by often extremely dedicated volunteers over many years. Most of them are high quality transcriptions with relatively few incorrectly entered bits of information. Recruitment of dedicated to the project volunteers was among its main successful factors.

However, this project has been severely affected by lack of resources. First, due to lack of support it often took years to correct problems with the algorithms that run the program. Secondly, lack of funding has led to loss of a dedicated coordinator.

While cumbersome, the program has successfully entered hundreds of thousands of verified records. Additionally, while the costs may have been such that it would have been cheaper to employ professional data entry personnel, the data would not have been entered without the novelty of the data entry program.

What began as a quest to find out how and why birds migrate, turned into one of our Nations greatest and longest running programs. The program still has volunteers transcribing data and has a web site/data entry portal at: https://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bpp/.

Main Lessons:

  • Citizen Science exists since 1880 and may be a viable solution for a greater participation and wider data collection.
  • Lack of resources can be a severe obstacle over a project’s viability.