BirdReturns: Citizen Science Data Prioritizes Conservation of Bird Migration Habitat in California


Waterfowl arriving in California’s Central Valley in the fall. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The dry Central Valley of California seems like the last place that would be rich in wetland bird habitat, but the region is a critical part of the Pacific migratory flyway, containing critical fragmented pockets of foraging grounds. A variety of shorebird species, with their adapted long legs and beaks, poke around in flooded lands to search for their meal that will sustain them till the next stop on their journey North.

A new initiative called BirdReturns, financed by The California Nature Conservancy, uses eBird citizen science bird observation data to collect information about habitats frequented by threatened species along the migratory pathway in the Central Valley. eBird is a successful citizen science program run out of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and asks participants from all over the world to submit bird observations online or via a smartphone application.  This eBird data is overlaid with satellite imagery of existing wetlands, allowing experts to target agricultural areas that are critical habitats for bird migration.

This image is taken from eBird’s website. It displays citizen science observations for the Central Valley of California.

Using this the data the BirdReturns program asks farmers to auction off their land to the Nature Conservancy for a couple weeks, agreeing  to keep it flooded to a level suitable for bird foraging (usually a couple inches will do). This model is called, “Payments for Ecosystem Services,” a popular economic approach to valuing nature for the regulatory services it provides like clean water and air.

Eric Hallstein, an Economist with the Nature Conservancy, recently told the New York Times that the data-intensive initiative is “disrupting the conservation industry by taking a new kind of data, crunching it differently and contracting differently.”

The BirdReturns program demonstrates the incredible value that large scale citizen science datasets can provide for critical conservation programs.



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