Monday, March 30, 2009

A century's worth of bird data online

Geologists aren't just about rocks and dinosaurs. At the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, there is a project underway to make available online the notes of 3,000 birdwatchers who participated in the Bird Phenology Program. The notes, on forms called Migration Observer Cards, span almost a century, and document migration arrival dates in the spring and fall across the US and Canada. There are 6 million of the cards, and volunteers have undertaken the huge task of transcribing and entering the data.
The BPP has local roots-- it was started in the 1881 by Wells W. Cooke, who wanted to broaden knowledge and understanding of migration. Cooke was born in Haydenville, a village in Williamsburg, just west of Amherst on Route 9. In 1881 he was teaching in Minnesota and organizing volunteers to collect migration data when his efforts came to the attention of C. Hart Merriam, of the newly formed American Ornithologist’s Union. Merriam extended the network to the rest of the US and Canada, as well as parts of the West Indies. In the 1880's the program was taken over by the federal government, but as participation declined in the mid-20th century, the program closed in 1970. The records were curated, but largely ignored, and finally passed on to Jessica Zelt. Zelt is overseeing the the project and reviewing the program’s possible uses and potential for collecting new data. She hopes that the data will provide insights into the effects of climate change on migration patterns and habits.
You can be a part of this important project. No particular expertise is required. Sign up to enter records into the database, and be a member of the next generation of "citizen scientists."

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