Bird Watching

Australia’s ninth bird count is underway, here’s how your birdwatching can help the experts

Citizen science is about to enter its biggest time of the year with a number of environmental-themed initiatives underway.

Perhaps the largest public participation event in Australian citizen science, Birdlife Australia’s Australian bird count kicked off on Monday, taking advantage of spring conditions for people to spot, identify and submit information about their local birds.

It’s an initiative that aims to record five million bird sightings in a week, with the public invited to spend 20 minutes birdwatching in their backyards and parks.

Participants use the BirdCount app and website to submit estimates on size, shape, coloration and select the most likely bird from a filtered menu.

These observations are uploaded to analysts at the organization’s headquarters, who plot the data.

The initiative, now nearly a decade old, was launched as a joint Birdlife science and commitment initiative to bring birdwatching into the mainstream.

The Bird Count fills a gap revealed by experienced ornithologists and specialist birders who focus their work on rare species, rather than birds common to Australian backyards and urban areas.

“We had to try and see if we could fill in the knowledge gaps about our most common birds and the birds we encounter every day,” says Sean Dooley, bird writer and public affairs manager at Birdlife Australia.

“Through our social research, we also realized that hundreds of thousands of Australians had a very strong connection to our native birds and we wanted to engage those people.”

As of 2021, over 600 individual species have been identified under the initiative, including invasive birds. Ubiquitous species like the rainbow lorikeet, noisy miner and Australian magpie are consistently the most spotted.

But putting the data together so that it can be used by professional researchers and experts requires rigour.

Is the data making its way to scientific research?

Bird Count data is retained by Birdlife Australia, but ‘quarantined’ from its existing expert survey statistics.

Rather than informing professional research – especially since it is less likely to focus on common bird species often seen in populated areas – the data serves as a supplement to professional observations.

On occasion, scientists have used this publicly obtained data to inform their research, while Birdlife itself has used the surveys to help local councils plan and manage public parks and gardens.

But with millions of sightings over the past decade building up a solid bank of information, experts have now developed much clearer pictures of species ‘guilds’, rather than individuals.

A guild is a collection of bird species that are not closely related, but depend on similar resources to survive. For example, although the commonly spotted welcome swallow and magpie lark may have diverged from their common ancestor around 35 million years ago, they still require the same resources – insects for food, mud and sticks for building the nest – and are often found nearby. human populations.

This data is useful for urban planners looking to create habitable human spaces that have minimal impact on the needs of these groups of birds.

“As we become more certain of the veracity of the data and its robustness, we will definitely start using it as a complement, and also combining it with our other research,” Dooley says.

“This is entering its ninth year now. We have actually gathered a considerable body of observations and data that confirm the trends and other studies.

A noisy miner / Credit: John Torcasio

Goal five million

More than 100,000 Australians are believed to have responded to a Bird Count survey so far and organizers are hoping to see a high turnout thanks to strong recruitment in the early years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The jump between 2019 and 2020 was about 20%,” says Dooley.

“Until 2020, Melbourne and Victoria actually trailed, on a per capita basis, in participation in bird counts. But with everyone locked down in Melbourne, it really accelerated – now it’s on par with Sydney and Brisbane in terms of participants per capita.

The event runs until October 23, 2022, with the Aussie Bird Count app available on smartphone app stores.