The State of the Birds (Citizen Science)

The long-term goal of this project is to establish a set of bird indices for all major Australian bird groups, so that future SOAB reports can also report on indices for shorebirds, waterbirds and seabirds.

                                                                   Paul Sullivan CEO, Birdlife Australia

The State of Australia’s Birds 2015 (SOAB) has just been released by BirdLife Australia, the nation’s largest bird conservation organisation. The report, developed in partnership with the Federal Department of Environment, National Environment Research Program, Charles Darwin University, Australian National University, the Environmental Resources Information Network and the Melbourne Museum has some worrying news about some of our most common and much-loved birds as there is evidence of serious population decline. Most will be surprised and disturbed to hear this includes willie wagtails, kookaburras and magpies.

I became aware of the report via a tweet from Birdlife Australia whom I follow and now understand a little more about bird indices and the stated goal of the project. It comes at a time when I am personally interested in the birds in my local area and in citizen science as an educator.

The stars are aligning.

As you know, I believe citizen science to be of fundamental importance for the health of our environment and democracy, as well as a considerable opportunity for students and schools to engage with learning in order to ensure the next generation are to be more scientifically, as well as environmentally literate. 

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What are bird indices?

The report clearly explains the concept and the reasons why we need this data:

“An Australian Bird Index can be thought of in similar terms to a stock market index such as the ASX, where the share prices of a number of corporations are chosen to be representative of the stock market as a whole. While there may be variation in the trends in share prices across individual corporations—some will increase, others will decrease—the composite ASX index powerfully captures the overall trend.

Stock market indices are also divided into several classes which provide more specialised information, such as the All Ordinaries and ASX 300 Metals and Mining, which are themselves logically grouped subsets of corporations. In the same way, each Australian Bird Index is made up of trends for several species, grouped and combined in such a way that it can reflect the general trend of that bird group. These indices can capture major environmental signals—using birds as the barometer—and provide a powerful basis for making informed decisions about our natural environment.”

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My local area

I read the report last night and know it is important to become personally engaged in being able to identify all the birdlife in my local area. This has been on my personal agenda for some years and only recently have I really started to makes good progress. Just last month Alan Cousins, a local birding enthusiast, was kind enough to drop off The Handbook of Birds Found The Illawarra, Shoalhaven and Adjacent Tablelands at work. It is an impressive book for local people.

It is important to teach my own children, as well as encourage colleagues and students at school to be citizen scientists. With this in mind, I went for my usual pre-dawn walk through wetlands and the coast around my home with the intention of photographing some shorebirds. I have been doing variations of this walk for almost a decade and it usually takes me 2-3 hours. I have no idea, over that time, if the shorebirds I see are in decline and this version of the report does not include data for east coast shorebirds. Yet.

It may have been my imagination but it was a walk without seeing a lot of birds at all; and, ominously, a raven did fly low overhead. I started to think what I have seen in the last 7-10 days walking between Kiama and Gerringong and listed them on my fingers – Black Swans, Willie Wagtails, ravens, Satin Bowerbirds, Dusky Moorhen, Crested Terns, Crested Pigeons, pelicans, seagulls, White Ibis, Superb Fairy-wren, magpies, currawong, a wattlebird, sparrows, Indian Myna, a couple of unidentified finches, Noisy Miner and I heard a koel – while making another list of what I had not spotted. This included one of my favourites, Little Pied Herons. I had not seen any Purple Moorhens, darters or egrets either.

However, I do not really know what the hard data might be about the health of the birds, literally, in my back and front yards around Kiama. This seems important and considering week after week is spent wandering a 22 kilometre stretch of coastline and living near Spring Creek Wetlands, it seems obvious that I should try to participate in collecting data and growing my own understanding. I certainly would like to improve my photography skills as photographing birds in flight is quite challenging.


flickr photo shared by Darcy Moore under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license


flickr photo shared by Darcy Moore under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license


flickr photo shared by Darcy Moore under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license


flickr photo shared by Darcy Moore under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license


flickr photo shared by Darcy Moore under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

How can we become involved?

You may wish to consider a membership to Birdlife Australia and to register your interest in being with a citizen scientist or you can download many resources on how to become an “Atlasser”This PDF is good for making a start and here is the Birdata website.

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Other resources for schools and individuals

BirdLife Australia also supports schools with an education program for citizen scientists and teachers can email [email protected] for advice. This website will help you with bird identification and you can read about some of BirdLife Australia’s most dedicated citizen scientistsNext time I am in Melbourne the H.L. White Library looks worth a visit.

Stay tuned. I will post again, probably in late Spring, about how it is all going and what I have learnt.

One question: where do you record you bird data?

Featured image: flickr photo by Darcy Moore http://flickr.com/photos/darcymoore/6909583054 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

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