Citizen-science pioneer, Project FeederWatch soars into 30th year

Media note: Two audio clips featuring conversations with citizen scientists and the founder of Project FeederWatch, as well as additional graphics can be downloaded at https://cornell.box.com/v/ProjectFeederWatch

ITHACA, N.Y. – This winter, Project FeederWatch – a citizen-science program where participants track birds visiting their backyard feeders from November to April – celebrates its 30th anniversary.

The program which mobilizes 20,000 citizen scientists across North America and features one of the largest databases of feeder bird populations in the world also shows how technology has helped citizen science grow bigger in unexpected ways.

“I think that’s crucial for a citizen-science project because people want to know that their efforts are paying off, and they’re interested to see how their results compare to others, where they fit into the big picture,” said Erica Dunn, Project FeederWatch founder.

In this way, users can pull up maps and visualizations of the distributions of a particular species over time, or how populations have grown or declined or moved their ranges. The most popular interactive tool has been a map that shows where FeederWatchers are located; they can zoom in on their own dot on the map.

Technology and the ability to manipulate data has been a boon for scientists who use FeederWatch data, allowing them to compare shifts in bird populations with data from previous years or with habitat changes or with prevalence of avian diseases.

“You can overlay bird count datasets with anything you can imagine – climate data or land-cover data,” said Emma Greig, Project FeederWatch leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Though Dunn never anticipated how big Project FeederWatch would become, she thinks it will keep growing, adding that citizen-science combined with the power of the internet provides unique long-term and wide-ranging data.

“There’s no way that a [single] scientist could gather the data,” Dunn said. “A single person even with a $1 million grant couldn’t gather the kind of data that Project FeederWatch gets in one year, so there’s power in numbers.”

Three decades of data provide a comprehensive look at continental wintertime populations of feeder birds over the late 20th and early 21st centuries—including some compelling stories of range expansions and contractions, populations in flux, and birds adapting to bird populations.

Project FeederWatch is operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada.

For more information:
Lindsey Hadlock
office: 607-255-6121
cell: 607-269-6911
lmh267@cornell.edu

Cornell University has television, ISDN and dedicated Skype/Google+ Hangout studios available for media interviews. For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.

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