Phenology Program Needs Online Volunteers

On Nov. 1, 1933, Mrs. Bruce Reid recorded seeing both a male and female ivory-billed woodpecker in Texas. And on May 28, 1938, Oscar McKinley Bryans observed a ruby-throated hummingbird in Michigan, noting that the birds were most common when apple trees were blooming.

These are just two of more than 6 million personal observations scribbled and preserved on note cards in government files. The cards record more than a century of information about bird migration; a veritable treasure trove for climate-change researchers because they will help them unravel the effects of climate change on bird behavior, said Jessica Zelt, coordinator of the North American Bird Phenology Program at the U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

That is -- once the cards are transcribed and put into a scientific database. The program needs help from birders and others across the nation to transcribe those cards into usable scientific information.

"These cards, once transcribed, will provide over 90 years of data, an unprecedented amount of information describing bird distributions, migration timing, and migration pathways, and how they are changing," said Zelt. "There is no other program that has the same historical depth of information that can help us understand the effect that global climate change has on bird populations across the country. When combined with current information, scientists will better understand how birds are responding to climate change and how to develop tools to help manage that change, especially for at-risk species."

The millions of hand-scribbled cards sit in row upon row of federal green filing cabinets in an old office dating from before WWII. The cards contain almost all of what was known of bird distribution and natural history from the Second World War back to the later part of the 19th century, said USGS senior scientist Chan Robbins, who kept track of the cards' whereabouts in attics and basements during the intervening years.

The collection, said Zelt, includes information on about 900 species, including some sightings of rare, extinct, or nearly extinct birds, such as the giant albatross, ivory-billed woodpecker and Carolina parakeet.

The Phenology program is joining efforts with the USA National Phenology Network, which has just kicked off a national program to recruit citizen scientists and professional researchers to monitor plant and animal life cycles, or phenology. The two efforts will complement each other, with the BPP combining its expertise on historical bird data with the USA-NPN's ongoing work to document changes in flowering, fruiting, migrations, reproduction, hibernation, and other plant and animal phenological events.

This program relies heavily on the participation of citizen scientists, said Zelt. "We currently house 6 million cards, which need to be scanned onto our Web site and then converted, solely by volunteers, into our database. Birders who want to concentrate on one particular group of birds can select that group or even a particular species. And if you live in the Baltimore-Washington area and would like to help the volunteer crew work with the historic files, you are welcome to do so."

To date, dedicated volunteers have scanned about 184,000 cards on hooded orioles, barred owls, spotted owls, scarlet tanagers, American redstarts, rose-breasted grosbeak and many other species. That leaves about 5,816,000 cards to go.

To learn more, go to the https://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bpp/BecomeAParticipant.cfm.

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