Feathered diversity: How birdwatchers move from hobbyists to citizen scientists

Living relics from the age of dinosaurs, aerial birds have captured the skies as their domain. They have likewise captivated our imagination and attention with their ability to fly, stirring humans to join them in the skies through the development of human aviation.

However, while our aircrafts have soared to heights even birds could not reach, humans still find inextricable beauty in how our feathered friends—from the towering regality of the Philippine eagle to the iridescent blue and jet-black plumage of the Palawan peacock-pheasant—glide in their abode. 

This fascination for taxonomic class Aves has morphed into a popular recreational activity called birdwatching, opening a new world that has been hidden in plain sight. It also serves as an invaluable tool in understanding these intriguingly diverse avian creatures—the scientific study of which is termed Ornithology. 

A hobby and science

As the term itself suggests, birdwatching pertains to the careful observation of aerial birds in their natural habitat—a hobby rooted in humanity’s interest in our surroundings and co-inhabitants of Earth. “Birdwatchers take joy in not only seeing birds, but in the entirety of the encounter experience with birds and nature in general,” Jelaine Gan, an instructor from the Institute of Biology at the University of the Philippines Diliman, shares in an interview with The LaSallian

As a means to immerse in nature, birdwatching can be done in many different ways. One can set up a camp in a patch of forest, take bird walks around a park, or observe one’s surroundings from home—it does not even have to be in a spot with plenty of trees. 

Birdwatching can also be akin to a treasure hunt, or for fans of the Pokémon franchise, like filling up the Pokédex. One can have a checklist of birds in a certain area, crossing off an entry if a bird is found. More dedicated birdwatchers go as far as documenting the birds’ physical features and behavior. Some even travel across cities and countries to expand the masterlist of the birds they have seen, trying to spot rare species or those that only appear in a location during a specific season or time of the year—kind of like knowing that certain Pokémon can only be found when it rains in-game. 

However, birdwatching is more than just a recreational activity; it also serves as a form of citizen science, allowing the general public to contribute to scientific endeavors. The simple process of watching birds, keeping track of them, and recording their features provides researchers with much needed data. “These data are important for scientists to understand patterns of distribution, population status, and even impact of certain variables, like tree cover,” Gan explains.

In the endeavor, binoculars are the essential tool for birdwatchers, as birds are observed from a distance so as not to disturb them. With these, one can see subtle details that frequently escape the eye. “These distinguishing characteristics can be a white eyebrow, a yellow vent, a purple throat, a black chin, or an orange breast,” Gan cites, noting that the species can be identified through their morphology, or the external form and physical structure of an organism. The overall size and shape “dove-like or eagle-like”—of the creature can also be quite telling of the type of bird it belongs under or is closely related to.

‘Eyes on the ground’

Birdwatchers essentially act as “thousands of eyes on the ground” to gather data on birds, describes Gan. Some birds are migratory creatures who traverse across the skies, making pit stops in various locations on their long journeys; birdwatchers also attempt to follow the pace of these birds’ flight routes, capitalizing on the opportunity to witness rare sightings of species native to different parts of the world. 

Birdwatchers have also discovered new sightings of species that previously had not been recorded in a certain area. This could point to altered migration patterns, perhaps as a result of climate change or changes in their old environments, leading to them expanding their range or moving to a more suitable habitat. 

In other cases, birds get lost, too, or are drifted to strange areas by storms and strong winds. An Australian pelican was once spotted in the waters of General Santos City—much farther up north than its usual locale in Australia and surrounding islands such as New Zealand and New Guinea. 

Further, with all their notes regarding the features and behavior of birds, these citizen scientists have also contributed significantly to ornithologists’ understanding of bird behavior and their ecological interactions. “We now know more about their diet, habitat, nest, morphological variation, calls, among many others,” Gan comments.

Many birdwatchers around the globe also make use of an application called eBird, developed by Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, enabling anybody to share information on species they have encountered. Users can upload photos, audio, location of sighting, number of individual birds, and other relevant details to the database—much like a real-life Pokédex. The project has made collecting data from the public much easier; birdwatchers now have a digital list to keep track of every bird they have seen, whereas scientists can use the crowdsourced data in various research efforts, as Gan testifies.

Road to conservation

Surveys conducted by birdwatchers have generated essential research data, helping scientists discover trends and major fluctuations in avian populations. Such can also support policies geared toward preserving their ecosystems and protecting these species against illegal hunting and trade. 

Gan herself utilizes the recorded data of birdwatchers in her own research on avian conservation. Using eBird records, she was able to locate recent sightings of the endangered North Philippine hawk-eagles and determine the remaining areas suitable for the species. “The more we understand their distribution, their behavior, [and] their ecology, the better we can conserve them,” she explains.

As a form of citizen science, birdwatching places the public at the forefront of scientific pursuits and relevant advocacies like animal conservation. “Birdwatching promotes a sense of stewardship, because once you start appreciating birds, you start to care about them more,” Gan affirms. Through this, one can become an active watchman rather than a passive persecutor of wildlife.

Immersing oneself into birdwatching means witnessing a whole new world, discovering species that we previously were not aware of and appreciating the diverse traits that make each creature unique. A beginner might be overwhelmed by the variety of birds and the wealth of detail. It can be frustrating trying to spot a bird among the trees or differentiating similar-looking species—akin to starting out with a Pokémon game and not knowing much about the different types, which ones can be found in what route, or even what each creature is called. 

However, just like finally encountering a shiny after spending hours running through patches of grass, anyone can become a birdwatcher and help in the progress of Science, filling up their own bird-dex of sorts. As Gan attests, “When you go out for a walk, be it in your backyard or on the way to the market, record what birds you see. It is that simple.”

By Raymund Luis Medialdea

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