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London Has Long History of Citizen Science

Updated: Dec 5, 2021


These four birders along London's Thames River were participating in the Christmas Bird Count. Their birding observations, when compiled with those of tens of thousands of other birders across the Americas, help scientists to understand issues such as bird population shifts and species' range changes. Photo by Paul Nicholson.


For well over a century, London birders have been participating in citizen science initiatives. In modern terms, citizen science is simply crowd-sourcing data about a particular theme for the benefit of scientists, other academics and planners who use these valuable data would otherwise, be too expensive to gather.


The Christmas Bird Count is an example of a bird citizen science initiative. Keen birders head out within designated geographic circles on or around December 25 every year to identify species and report on population counts. The first of these counts, also known as CBCs, occurred in 1900. It is impressive that the planners recognized the power of citizen science even before the term "bird watching" had been coined in 1901 by British ornithologist Edmund Selous. London, Ontario first joined in on these counts in 1909.


Christmas Bird Counts are now conducted across the Americas with tens of thousands of birders participating. Because of the depth of the historical record, we have learned much about bird species such as population fluctuations and range changes. CBCs are the oldest example of citizen science.


Because of the proven value of the CBCs, many more avian citizen science initiatives have been established in the past decades, They range from very accessible and fun to more specialized, but they all involve birders sharing their observations for the greater good. Birds Canada coordinates nationally on many of these.


The Great Backyard Bird Count is a citizen science initiative that runs through Ontario's Family Day weekend every February. Families or individual birders spend some time recording and then uploading their bird sightings.


Perhaps the best citizen science initiative for birders now is eBird. Keen birders will upload sightings at any time and at any location around the planet. Since 2002 when the platform launched, more than a billion bird observations have been uploaded. Academics now rely heavily on this database to conduct research. While citizen science is the raison d'être of eBird, there are, of course, many valuable by-products. For example other birders can review sightings at hot spots, and eBird keeps track of all of your personal lists if you are that way inclined.


The true value of citizen science is shown every year by the academic research that is published. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology published a paper in the journal Plos One that demonstrated that data collected by amateur birders underpins up to a whopping 77% of the studies in the field of birds and climate change. "Our paper is a chance to say thank you to the many people who are citizen scientists," said lead author Dr. Caren Cooper.


Breeding bird surveys occur across Canada from time to time, and following

each, an atlas of breeding birds is created. The third Ontario Breeding Bird

Atlas is currently underway. It is a five-year initiative and the first year's data have now been recorded. The province is divided into 10 km X 10 km squares for surveying purposes. Approximately four squares cover London and there are approximately thirty other squares covering the balance of Middlesex County. A primary volunteer atlasser is assigned to each square. Detailed observations including breeding codes are made through each species' breeding season.


"Point counts" are often completed by citizen scientists as part of breeding

bird surveys, marsh bird monitoring, nocturnal owl surveys, and other bird surveys. For point counts, birders rely on bird songs, calls, and other vocalizations.


Other areas have noted the many successes of citizen science in the birding

field so have started their own initiatives. Another platform similar to eBird is iNaturalist.ca. This is used to capture observations about the broader natural world. There are now also citizen science initiatives that range from astronomy to air quality and weather.


It is easy, fun, and gratifying to contribute to bird citizen science initiatives. Through the fall, you can see volunteer hawk watchers charting the migration of raptors at Hawk Cliff forty minutes south of London on Lake Erie.


To contribute your own bird sightings, you can establish a free account with

eBird Canada. For a comprehensive listing of bird citizen science programs coordinated by Birds Canada, visit birdscanada.org.

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