Just in time for summer solstice (the longest day of the year!), we bring you the heartwarming tale of a study that analyzed data collected about our feathery friends in the middle of winter. The Audobon Christmas Bird Count, a yearly bird census originating back in 1900, is conducted by bird-loving volunteers all over the Western Hemisphere who spot birds and record their sightings. It is also an example of what some call “citizen” or “crowd-sourced” science, and a newly published PLOS ONE article demonstrates how this scientific data, collected by the general public, can help researchers assess the conservation needs of an at-risk migratory bird, the western grebe.
Canadian researchers wanted to take a closer look at the bird population patterns of the grebe, a marine water bird that had recently been showing a worrying trend of drastic population declines in its winter home, ranging from the Pacific coast to California. In “Citizen Science Reveals an Extensive Shift in the Winter Distribution of Migratory Western Grebes,” researchers modeled a whoppin’ 36 years of collected bird count data from 163 “circles,” or designated diameters of land, mounting to a total of 2.5 million grebe observations.
So, what did they—and we, in this case—find? Thanks to decades of data collected by birdwatchers (1975-2010), researchers were able to show that western grebe populations along the northern Pacific coastal region decreased by about 95% over 36 years, but increased by over 300% in coastal California. Similar trends were observed for related bird species, suggesting that the winter habitat of the grebe has shifted south by ~ 900 km, to California, between 1980 and 2010.
This is much better news than finding a concerning population decline that might prompt time-consuming and expensive conservation efforts. The researchers state that they aren’t yet sure of the reasons for this shift, but they suspect that the types of fish prey the grebes feed on may have also shifted in abundance between the two locations. All in all, this study demonstrates that wildlife data gathered by the general public (in any season, really) can result in meaningful, published scientific research that is useful to ecologists and conservationists alike.
Citation: Wilson S, Anderson EM, Wilson ASG, Bertram DF, Arcese P (2013) Citizen Science Reveals an Extensive Shift in the Winter Distribution of Migratory Western Grebes. PLoS ONE 8(6): e65408. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065408