A great way for birders and nature enthusiasts to contribute to wildlife/nature conservation is by participating in citizen science projects.
Citizen science is simply scientific research that uses information collected by people who are not professional scientists. These projects are lead by professional scientists but rely on members of the general public (i.e. citizen scientists) who are enthusiasts of a particular subject to collect data for them. Examples include birders or people who enjoy wildlife viewing as a hobby.
There are different levels of citizen science projects, ranging from some where almost anyone can contribute data to others that require a certain level of skill (such as being able to identify certain species) for you to participate as a citizen scientist.
Some projects require you to submit photos, others to submit a list of species seen in a particular time period, others might require more detailed information such as number of young vs adults seen, and so on.
Citizen science is a great way for people who are not scientists by profession to contribute to improved knowledge, and conservation, of the natural world.
The following are some citizen science projects and online platforms that birders can participate in. No matter what your skill level is when it comes to birding, you will find something here that you can take part in.
The African Bird Atlas Project
This is an ambitious collaborative project that is aimed at documenting the current distribution of birds across Africa using records sent in by birders. The idea is to have an online database that shows the most up-to-date distribution maps possible for the birds that occur in Africa. The data is open-source, meaning it is freely-available to anyone who wants to use it. This is meant to serve as a reliable data source that scientists, conservationists, governments and decision-makers can use for research and to make informed development decisions that do not have big negative impacts on Africa’s birds and ecosystems.
The maps show not only where each bird is found, but also which areas within its range it is most common and which areas it is rare. The project’s data can also be used to study bird migration and movement patterns. This is possible thanks to a very robust science-based protocol of collecting data, which is also very easy and fun to do. In short, bird atlasers (the citizen scientists) record a list of all the birds that they see and hear, in the order that they see/hear them, within 5-day periods. The continent is divided into 9×9 km grid squares called ‘pentads’ and all records submitted by atlasers are entered into the appropriate pentad where the atlaser was.
The main requirement in order to become a bird atlaser is that you need to have fairly decent bird identification skills i.e. you must be able to identify birds in the field. Most atlasers use an app called BirdLasser to record and submit their lists. The app makes it extremely easy and fun to contribute to the project. It is freely available for download on the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store. Atlasers who prefer to record their lists with the old-school note and pen, rather than a smartphone, can upload their lists onto the website of the appropriate sub-projects under the ABAP (see projects below).
There are several country or regional projects under the umbrella of the African Bird Atlas Project. For Kenya, there is the Kenya Bird Map project.
Other projects under the ABAP include the Southern African Bird Atlas Project 2, which covers the Southern African region (South Africa, eSwatini, Lesotho, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique), and the Nigerian Bird Atlas Project.
I encourage any keen birder in Africa, or visiting Africa, to join the ABAP through any of the projects mentioned above and contribute your bird observations to the project. Once registered as an atlaser, you can record and submit lists using BirdLasser from any country in Africa, including those that do not have specific country/regional sub-projects, e.g. Uganda, Somalia or Cameroon.
The Virtual Museum
The Virtual Museum is a project run by the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology, at the University of Cape Town. It has a range of sub-projects aimed at mapping the African distributions of many different kinds of wildlife using photos submitted by citizen scientists. Organisms covered include birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, dung beetles, lacewings, lepidopterans (butterflies and moths), odonates (dragonflies and damselflies), spiders, scorpions, echinoderms (starfish and relatives), orchids, mushrooms and trees.
The great thing about the Virtual Museum is that you do not need to know what species you have photographed. You simply upload your photo with its date and location and an expert will identify it. Photos do not have to be award-winning. Even smartphone images can work.
When it comes to birds, it is also great because all photos of birds uploaded to the BirdPix section get linked to the African Bird Atlas Project. This is a great way for people who do not yet know how to identify birds very well to contribute to the ABAP.
eBird is a project run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and is the largest citizen science project on birds globally. In fact, with over 586,708 people having contributed to it so far, it is probably the largest citizen science project of all. It is an online platform that gathers records of birds from all over the world in the form of lists and other media like photos and videos. It is less structured in terms of protocols for data collection than the ABAP and accommodates birders of any skill levels. eBird also has an app, as well as the option to upload records directly on the website.
The lack of a clear set data-collection protocol for people to follow, and lack of standardised spatial units (like grid squares), however makes the data difficult to use for detailed analysis in places with very few eBirders and records such as Africa. The African Bird Atlas is much better suited for the African situation.
There are some impressive things that have been done with eBird data however in the Americas, where there are thousands of people who use eBird. eBird records also contribute to Birds of the World (also run by the Cornell Lab), which is a detailed collection of information on all the birds of the world.
It is however a great repository for photographic records and definitely a great place to submit your bird photos and videos to as well.
(Check out this blog post about eBird’s May 2020 Global Big Day).
iNaturalist is a massive online repository of (mostly photographic) records of all sorts of life forms on earth. Like the Virtual Museum, you don’t need to know what it is you have photographed. You simply upload your photo, tag the location and try your best to narrow it down to what you think it is. E.g. if you know it’s a frog but don’t know which exact type, you simply identify it as a frog. If someone else who knows which species it is sees it, they will narrow it down to the species level.
iNaturalist has no specific focus in terms of an organism group. It however provides a platform for people to create their own projects focused on a specific group or area they are interested in. Others can then contribute records to your project. An example is the Primates of Eastern Africa project.
iNaturalist also has an app that is free to download.
This unique citizen science platform is dedicated to recording and sharing bird sounds/vocalisations, i.e. calls and songs. Anyone can record a bird singing or calling and then upload it to Xeno-Canto with the date, location and what species you think it is. Others will be able to correct you if you misidentify the bird, and they can help you identify it if you don’t know what it is.
Bird sound is an important aspect of ornithology, the study of birds, and also helps to confirm the presence of species that are difficult to see.
I recommend buying an affordable audio-recording device to record bird sounds. You can also use the audio recorder in your smartphone but the sound quality will not be very good, especially for analysis of sound using sonograms.
There are many other citizen science platforms and projects out there but these are the major ones, especially bird-wise, and should give you a good starting point into the exciting world of citizen science!
Feel free to visit my Resources for Birders page to see my recommendations for other useful resources including books, spotting scopes and camera gear.