Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Bird Phenology Program seeks birders to transcribe data

The U.S. Geological Survey needs birders to help with historical notecards of bird observations dating back 100 years. Do you want to peek into your favorite species' history?

As part of the USGS North American Bird Phenology Program, birders can add data from more than 6 million cards to a national database and provide "an unprecedented amount of information describing bird distributions, migration timing, and migration pathways and how they are changing," said Jessica Zelt, coordinator of the North American Bird Phenology Program at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

The millions of hand-scribbled cards sit in row upon row of federal green filing cabinets of ancient vintage in a modest and fittingly 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.

"When I go through the files, it is just amazing some of the stories that are recorded there," said Jessica Zelt, who is an avid birder herself. "For example, one of our online participants recently wrote to tell me she had transcribed a migration card on purple martins by American ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice from 1926. It is exciting to see people today being linked to a piece of birding history."

Participants recorded their name, locality and year, along with arrival and departure dates, date of abundance, and whether it was a species common in that area. Personal observations on the cards often caught the enthusiastic joy of a birder sighting a rare bird.

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 [right], birds whose very names make the hearts of avid birders go pitter-patter.
You can participate in history by volunteering your time, and you needn't live near the NABPP office in the Baltimore-Washington area. Become a participant here.

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