Pandemic bird watching created a data boom and a problem

In one morning in late September, Kestin Thomas stood next to the towering glass facade of the Time Warner Building in Manhattan, holding a dead bird. The little body was still warm in his hand, but he could not feel a heartbeat flutter or the soft breath escape. He recorded the death on a data sheet that marked time, day and place. He then put the bird in a plastic bag and took it home, leaving it in the freezer for 24 hours before finally handing over the body at the New York City Audubon Society.

“It was heartbreaking,” he says.

Thomas is one of many people who started birds during the pandemic, inspired by the sparrows he saw on his daily walks. “I realized how adorable they are and that they live in the city among us and thrive,” he says. He started taking pictures and sound recordings and identified the birds using apps like Merlin and eBird. These records add information to databases that researchers use to study migration and behavior. “All the observations that people send, they go into very advanced modeling to create distribution maps for species to look at trends in their populations,” says Andrew Farnsworth, senior researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which maintains both apps.

Now Thomas is also volunteering with Audubon Society’s Project Safe Flight, which collects a different kind of data. The group gets people to monitor buildings in New York during the fall and spring migration seasons to record the number of birds killed or injured by flying into windows.

Bird watching has boomed during the pandemic, and all the extra interest has translated into civic science initiatives that are seeing a big boost in participation. With autumn migration now in full swing, this army of avid birdwatchers is gathering a wealth of data on how weather, human movements, artificial light and urban infrastructure can affect birds as they travel. Farnsworth notes that while both Cornell projects have grown every year since their inception over ten years ago, the increase in users, downloads and data over the past 18 months was unprecedented. “Pandemic time was really off the charts,” he says.

eBird, which allows birdwatchers to note which species they have discovered – and where – had an increase of more than 40 percent in observations in April 2020 compared to the previous year. That’s more than double the app’s normal annual growth, according to data from Farnsworth. In February, 140,000 users to date logged the largest number of users in a single month and a 50 percent increase over last February. Now there are over a billion records.

The same is true for Merlin, who helps birdwatchers make identifications through images, sound recordings or descriptions of the bird’s color, size and location. In February, the app was installed on 200,000 new devices – an increase of 175 percent over the previous year – and it had more than 611,000 active users, double the number registered in February 2020.

eBird was already an extremely useful database that scientists have used to study the sea eagle population, study the effect of extreme weather on birds, and show changes in the species’ songs. Now, posts from the pandemic are helping them understand how human activity — or lack thereof — affects birds. A study published this month in Science advances of researchers at the University of Manitoba used eBird data from the United States and Canada to study bird behavior in areas that typically have lots of people, such as cities, airports, and major roads. The researchers reported that during lockdown, bird activity increased for more than 80 percent of the species they studied, including hummingbirds, bald eagles and swallows.

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