This Summer season We’re Serving to Scientists Monitor Birds. Be part of In.
If a bird is not in a forest and there is no one to see that it is not there, is it really not there?
That, in essence, is the conundrum that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is confronting. For more than two decades, the lab has run eBird, a project that collects observations from amateur bird watchers. It is a successful project: Nearly 900,000 participants around the world have submitted some 18 million lists a year of what they have spotted during their bird-watching sessions. And the number of lists has been growing at a pace of some 20 percent a year.
That has proved to be a trove for scientists to study changes in populations and behavior of birds, revealing “complex relationships between people and birds in ways that we couldn’t have before,” said Tom Auer, who leads the geospatial data science team at the Cornell lab.
For example, the voluminous eBird data has established how the bright lights of big cities draw in migratory birds, especially young ones. And cities, with their canyons of concrete and asphalt, are generally poor habitats for birds. Cornell scientists are now studying whether the diversion leads to exhaustion and starvation, and whether fewer birds survive the migratory journey.
But, as the project relies on the efforts of volunteers, the data does not cover all places equally. “You can imagine obvious places where there aren’t data,” Mr. Auer said. “Mostly because people are drawn to places where they can see the most birds.”
Neglected areas include farmland and industrial tracts. The sparsity of data affects the ability to answer questions like whether a change in farming practices helps or hurts birds. “It helps if people can spread out and can cover wider habitats,” Mr. Auer said.
For scientists, knowing where birds are not is as important as knowing where they are. That can reveal declining populations, shifting habitats or changes in migration.
That is a tall ask, though — a social experiment in asking people to go out of the way to places where there are probably fewer birds to spot.
Mr. Auer also said that the lab would like to recruit not just experienced bird-watchers but also those who are just learning to identify various species. “Having that variety of skill levels actually improves the quality of research we do,” he said.
The newcomers will generally be less observant and make more mistakes, but a lot of errors are caught when Cornell reviews the data, and new watchers can provide a useful comparison to the more experienced observers.
“If we didn’t have beginning birders to compare to expert birders, we wouldn’t really know how good the expert birders were at detecting birds,” Mr. Auer said. “We’ve done tests with our models, where we remove beginning birders, and when we do that, the models perform more poorly than if we included the beginners.”
For two months this spring, a pair of California condor parents carefully tended to a single, enormous egg. They took turns sitting on the egg to keep it warm, and they routinely rotated the egg, a behavior believed to promote proper chick development.
What the birds, part of a breeding population at the Oregon Zoo, did not appear to notice was that the egg was a high-tech fraud. The plastic shell, made with a 3-D printer, was stuffed with sensors designed to surreptitiously monitor conditions inside the condors’ nest.
For weeks, the dummy egg tracked the nest temperature, logged the birds’ egg-turning behaviors and recorded the ambient sound. The zoo hopes this data will allow it to better replicate natural conditions in the artificial incubators that are key to its condor breeding efforts.
California condors, which can have wingspans of nearly 10 feet, are critically endangered. So every year, when the birds lay their eggs, the zoo whisks them out of the nest and into the safety of the incubators. This strategy has several advantages, prompting some pairs to lay a second egg, enabling the zoo to monitor embryo development and protecting the fragile embryos from condor rowdiness.
“During breeding season, tensions tend to run high,” said Kelli Walker, the zoo’s senior condor keeper. “And occasionally pairs will get into a fight in the nest room and by accident injure the egg.” (The chicks are returned to the nest when they begin hatching.)
The more closely the zoo can replicate natural conditions in the incubators, the more successful it will be. So Ms. Walker enlisted Scott Shaffer, an animal ecologist and bird researcher at San Jose State University, and Constance Woodman, a bird scientist and expert on conservation technology at Texas A&M University, who together have made data-logging smart eggs for many different bird species.
Here’s how they brought the condor eggs into being:
Design the eggs
Dr. Woodman created a digital model of the imitation condor egg. The shell had to be thin enough for the internal sensors to detect temperature changes but robust enough to withstand potential avian abuse. (A macaw once threw one of Dr. Woodman’s eggs out of its nest, two stories off the ground.) To ensure the egg would not pop open, she designed threaded shell halves that would screw together tightly. “It will stay closed unless you’ve got thumbs,” she said. “Birds do not have thumbs, so we’re in good shape.”
Print the shells
Dr. Woodman used a 3-D printer loaded with a plastic selected specifically to be safe for birds, which might spend months sitting on the eggs. “I really, really don’t want to mean well and poison a bird,” she said. Printing each shell took 13 hours.
Enlist the test turkey
To ensure that the egg was not prone to spinning or wobbling, Dr. Woodman gave it to Loretta, her litter-box-trained “house turkey,” she said. “If Loretta doesn’t like it, she won’t sit on it.”
Dye the eggs
The color of bird eggs varies by species, and Dr. Woodman and Dr. Shaffer always try to replicate it as closely as possible. To match the subtle, blue-green tint of condor eggs, Dr. Woodman dipped the shells into a pot of a nontoxic dye intended for children’s clothing.
Add the electronics
Small data loggers tucked inside the shells can track the temperature and movement of the eggs. An audio recorder captures the sounds in the nest, which the zoo will play back to the eggs in the incubator. “Developing embryos can hear things through their shells,” Ms. Walker said. And she used electrical tape to cover the lights on the electronics, “otherwise it would have looked like a flashing Christmas egg.”
Weigh them down
Some birds will reject eggs that are abnormally light. So Ms. Walker used a hot glue gun to attach rocks to the inside of the egg, bringing its weight to more than half a pound.
Make the swap
The first condor parents to receive a smart egg this year were a female known only as number 762 and her mate, Alishaw. “He’s not what you would call a traditionally fantastic dad,” Ms. Walker said. “He’ll incubate as long as he has to, but he’s not thrilled about it.” (762’s devotion to him, however, remains undimmed. “She’s kind of a ride-or-die with Alishaw,” Ms. Walker said.)
When both birds left the nest, zoo staff moved their real egg to an incubator and replaced it with the fake one. The condors did not seem to notice. (Their chick, which has since hatched, is back with its parents and doing well, Ms. Walker said.)
Analyze the data
When the breeding season is over, Dr. Shaffer and Ms. Walker will analyze the data. The findings will inform future incubator settings and, the team hopes, help bring more California condor chicks safely into the world. “It’s just a really cool use of technology that will only get better,” Dr. Shaffer said.
If there’s new hope, it’s blurry. What’s certain: The roller coaster tale of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a majestic bird whose presumed extinction has been punctuated by a series of contested rediscoveries, is going strong.
The latest twist is a peer-reviewed study Thursday in the journal Ecology and Evolution presenting sighting reports, audio recordings, trail camera images and drone video. Collected over the last decade in a Louisiana swamp forest, the precise location omitted for the birds’ protection, the authors write that the evidence suggests the “intermittent but repeated presence” of birds that look and behave like ivory-billed woodpeckers.
But are they?
“It’s this cumulative evidence from our multiyear search that leaves us very confident that this iconic species exists, and it persists in Louisiana and probably other places as well,” said Steven C. Latta, one of the study’s authors and director of conservation and field research at the National Aviary, a nonprofit bird zoo in Pittsburgh that helps lead a program that searches for the species.
But Dr. Latta acknowledges that no single piece of evidence is definitive, and the study is carefully tempered with words like “putative” and “possible.”
Therein lies the problem. As one expert wrote during a previous ivory bill go-round: “The body of evidence is only as strong as the single strongest piece — ten cups of weak coffee do not make a pot of strong coffee.”
This time, two experts who have been skeptical of previous sightings said they remained unconvinced.
“The trouble is, it’s all very poor video,” said Chris Elphick, a professor of conservation biology at the University of Connecticut who studies birds. Pileated and red-headed woodpeckers, among other species, can look a lot like ivory bills from a distance or from certain angles. Light can play games with the eye. Audio is easy to misconstrue.
“I don’t think this changes very much, frankly,” he said. “I would love to be wrong.”
The stakes of the recent findings are heightened because federal wildlife officials have proposed that ivory-billed woodpeckers be declared extinct, which would end legal protection. Last year, citing “substantial disagreement among experts regarding the status of the species,” the United States Fish and Wildlife Service extended its deadline to make a final ruling.
A spokeswoman, Christine Schuldheisz, said the agency did not comment on outside studies but was working toward a final decision, which is expected later this year.
According to the authors of the new study, removing federal protection would be bad for any remaining ivory bills. But other scientists say there’s a steep price to keeping them on the endangered species list.
“Whether or not limited federal conservation funds should be spent on chasing this ghost, instead of saving other genuinely endangered species and habitats, is a vital issue,” said Richard O. Prum, a professor of ornithology at Yale.
Ivory bills fell into steep decline as Americans logged their habitat, old-growth swampy forests of the Southeast. Few remained by the 1930s, but a scientific expedition discovered a nest in Louisiana, in one of the largest remaining swaths of habitat. The land, called the Singer Tract, was leased for logging. Conservation groups tried to purchase the rights, but the company refused to sell. The last widely accepted ivory bill sighting in the United States was in 1944, a lone female, seen in her roost with the forest cleared around her.
Since then, purported sightings have sparked joy and backlash. One, in 1967, was heralded on the front page of The New York Times. Twenty years later, another one, in Cuba, where a subspecies or similar species may or may not hang on, was also reported on Page One. In 2002, searchers in Louisiana thought they’d captured audio of the ivory bill’s distinctive double rap, but a computer analysis determined the sound to be distant gunshots. A reported sighting in Arkansas in 2004 led to a paper in Science and flurry of bird tourism, but that evidence was heavily criticized.
To Dr. Elphick, a birder as well as a scientist, one of the most telling results is what so much effort has not yielded: a single clear photograph.
“There are these incredibly rare birds that live in the middle of the Amazon that people can get good, identifiable photographs of,” Dr. Elphick said. “And yet people have spent hundreds of thousands of hours trying to find and photograph ivory-billed woodpeckers in the United States. If there’s really a population out there, it’s inconceivable to me that no one could get a good picture.”
But Dr. Latta, the study co-author, insisted that he had seen one clearly with his own eyes. He was in the field in 2019 to set up recording units, and he figures he spooked the bird. As it flew up and away, he got a close, unimpeded view of its signature markings.
“I couldn’t sleep for, like, three days,” Dr. Latta said. “It was because I had this opportunity and I felt this responsibility to establish for the rest of the world, or at least the conservation world, that this bird actually does exist.”
Our understanding of birds has been profoundly shaped by the work of everyday people. After all, anyone can step outside and pay attention to an untamed world swooping above.
This summer, we’re inviting readers around the world to participate in a science project we are working on with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We’ll be gathering observations about the birds around us, filling in data gaps and giving researchers a clearer picture of biodiversity in places that birders frequent less.
It’s important work. Nearly half of all bird species worldwide are known or suspected to be in decline, and climate change could accelerate this trend. By gathering data like this, you’ll help inform decisions about the conservation and study of birds.
You don’t need to be an expert or have special equipment. For beginners, we’ll provide a series of challenges in the next few weeks aimed at getting you on the path toward contributing scientific data.
If you’re an experienced birder, we have a bit more to ask. We would like you to go beyond your usual hot spots to make observations in areas where data is sparse.
The project will run from now to September. Join us at any time, and connect with a global community of readers, scientists and researchers. Share what you’ve learned. And maybe even discover a new way of seeing nature.
To get started, tell us a little about yourself below. It should take only about two minutes, and sign-up is free.
The next step is to download Merlin or eBird, birding apps from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Click the sentence below that best describes your birding experience, and stay tuned for an email with a complete set of instructions.
Please note that Merlin and eBird are third-party apps with their own privacy policies, and The Times does not control (and is not responsible for) their content or privacy practices.
Frequently asked questions
Can I still be included in The New York Times project if I already use the Merlin or eBird app?
Of course! Please complete the form above to register your participation in this project. You can continue to submit your observations through the apps as you usually do.
Why do I need to register with The New York Times if I’m submitting my data to the Cornell Lab?
Registering will allow us to engage with Times readers specifically.
Do I need to download the Merlin or eBird apps to my phone to submit my observations?
If you are a beginning birder, we recommend the Merlin app as a reference and learning tool, which will also allow you to share your observations with the Cornell Lab.
If you are an experienced birder, you may submit your observations through the eBird app or via the eBird website on your computer.
I have a question about Merlin or eBird, or I need additional help getting set up! Where do I go?
See here for help with Merlin, and here for help with eBird. For additional assistance, submit a support ticket. Or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org with any further questions.
We’re so glad you’re taking part in our summer birding project! Tell us in the comments what got you interested in birding. And if you are just getting started, let us know what you could use help with.