Fun with citizen science: The Aussie Backyard Bird Count

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Fun with citizen science: The Aussie Backyard Bird Count

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Tree Martin (Petrochelidon nigricans),  by Aviceda http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Aviceda , Available on Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons 3.0 license

Tree Martin (Petrochelidon nigricans), by Aviceda http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Aviceda , Available on Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons 3.0 license

The inaugural Aussie Backyard Bird Count was a lot of fun, and illustrates the power of citizen science to increase public engagement and build knowledge. The data gathered should also provide a baseline for urban and suburban bird population trends. Despite  these benefits, the bird count also illustrates some of the challenges faced by citizen science initiatives.

As the tiny indigo bird skimmed the grass, I noticed its square tail. This was not the sharp V of a swallow, but the stumpier rump of a martin. For years I’d been mistaking this often-seen species as a Welcome Swallow – but it was a Tree Martin! (pictured above)

This exciting revelation came as a directly result of participating in BirdLife Australia’s Aussie Backyard BirdCount. It really reminded me of the power of citizen science to collect large amounts of data, build knowledge, and engage the public.

Benefits for the participant

It is now just over a week since the event ended, and I miss it because:

  • It gave my random and rather vague bird watching efforts a sense of purpose.
  • It improved my observation skills, and helped me focus on important details I would normally have missed (such as the Martin’s tail)
  • It helped me to appreciate Sydney’s great array of open spaces – we are lucky we are to share our city and suburbs with such spectacular creatures as the Red-rumped Parrot (pictured below), Superb fairy wren, Purple Swamphen
  • It was a great tool for luring others into appreciating birds and nature– I was enthusiastically assisted by my husband, parents, 12-year niece, and mother in-law.

During the week I participated in the bird count, regular events became exotic ornithological discovery expeditions – taking a lunch break at Prince Alfred Park, attending a conference at Olympic park, visiting my family near Campbelltown, bushwalking in the Blue Mountains.

I saw 305 birds and 45 species. My highlight was a Spotted Pardalote – seen showering in one of Blackheath’s hanging Swamps.

Male red-rumped parrots (Psephotus haematonotus) in suburban Sydney. Photo by Toby Hudson, Available on Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons 3.0 license

Male red-rumped parrots (Psephotus haematonotus) in suburban Sydney. Photo by Toby Hudson, Available on Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons 3.0 license

Benefits for the organisers

For a first-year event, the bird count was a big success. Over 20,000 checklists were submitted, with sightings of over 800,000 birds and 673 species.

These data will help inform research efforts to understand trends in Australia’s bird populations. In this age of the anthropocene it’s important to learn which species are more adept at living with us, and which species are not doing so well. Current winners appear to be Rainbow Lorikeets, Noisy Miners, and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos.

It also proved very useful as a publicity tool to raise awareness of birds and how people can get involved with monitoring and helping protect them. BirdLife Australia got some great media coverage from the event, including this article in Sydney Morning Herald.

But it’s not all fun…

Despite these clear benefits, the bird count also highlighted some of the challenges faced by citizen science initiatives.

The quality of the data collected must be treated with caution. I certainly know some of my bird identifications were incorrect. BirdLife Australia will need to invest time and expertise reviewing and verifying these observations.

Project overlap and duplication is also an issue. The OEH’s White Ibis Count and Sulphur Crested Cockatoo Count ran during the same period as the Bird Count, so I submitted separate sighting information for these.

Separate and isolated citizen projects limit the opportunity to collaborate and share data across networks, reducing the effectiveness of the field as a whole. They also risk in volunteer confusion, data inconsistencies and unnecessary competition.

A national network body is required to provide focus, build capacity and foster innovation. The creation of the Citizen Science Network Australia in May 2014 is a promising step in this direction. I’m really hoping this network drives a unified approach to citizen science – including centralised data sharing and greater standardisation of methods.


Feature image:  Tree Martin (Petrochelidon nigricans),  by Aviceda , Available on Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons 3.0 license


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