Bird Phenology Program

Consistent with another of my volunteer gigs (with Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic), I seem to have positioned myself as a wetware information transcriber. A couple of months ago I started working about an hour a week as a data entry volunteer for the North American Bird Phenology Program, based out of Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

Phenology is the study of comings and goings in the natural world—what day of the year the swallows return to Capistrano, the lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, that sort of thing. Decade-to-decade trends in a particular location can provide additional evidence to researchers studying climate patterns, among other things.

There are a number of phenology programs active under the umbrella of the USA National Phenology Network. One of the broadest-scoped citizen science initiatives was organized in 1881 by Wells W. Cooke, and was later expanded by C. Hart Merriam of the newly-formed American Ornithologists’ Union. For 90 years, up to 3,000 field researchers submitted data on the arrivals and departures of migratory birds in North America, in sort of an ornithological Mass Observation Project. Data was collected on 2×5-inch slips; when the project was wound down in 1970 (as other means of collecting similar data evolved), the records base comprised 6 million of them. In 2003, Sam Droege began efforts to safeguard and digitize the slips.

Many of the records are on a GPO-issued form, designated 3-801 or Bi-801; this form was redesigned a couple of times to collect different data. But many more are simply hand-written slips in a particularly compact shorthand that identifies the species (often simply by a three-digit AOU number), the location and observer, and the dates that the bird was first seen in the course of the year; seen again; seen commonly; and last seen during the breeding or migration season.

As you would expect, the transcription of this data from scanned document images into a web form is not an automatable process. Enter the volunteer scribes. It takes me 30 seconds or more to copy out a card—up to several minutes if I have to puzzle out a location name (Google Maps is my BFF) written in faded fountain pen ink in a cursive handwriting style more suited to wedding invitations. The data collection protocol also provides for observer’s notes on whether the bird breeds in the area, is a winter resident, and assessment of abundance (one point on the scale is the quaintly labelled “tolerably common”)—all that, along with any other notes made by the observer, is to be transcribed into fixed fields or free text. Each observer seems to have a different approach to spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. The opportunity for transcription errors is therefore high, so each card is copied into the database twice, then compared.

There’s lots more to be done: the number of digitized cards only numbers in the few hundred thousands, so if you’re into birds or just have some spare cycles, I would encourage you to sign up for the program. You can request to transcribe cards only for a particular location or a particular species, or you can do what I do and just pull cards at random. I’ve copied slips filed from tiny, obscure places like Hadlyme, Connecticut and Rhoma, Texas; I’ve worked with a card prepared by A. W. Schorger, author of the definitive book on the Passenger Pigeon. No particular knowledge of birds is required; in fact, the procedures we follow call for a literal transcription of the record, no interpretation or corrections allowed. So even if I “know” that the common name of a bird has been changed in the past hundred years, my instructions are to copy what the observer wrote, and to let the researchers clean up the data later.

And that turns out to be a learning experience for me, too. Before I started transcribing, I wasn’t aware that Purple Martin (Progne subis) and Eastern Phoebe (Sayronis phoebe) once had simpler names in common use (Martin, Phoebe). And I had never heard of Holboell’s Grebe, which we know now as Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena).

Droege and his team have already begun to draft papers from the data, especially looking at patterns of Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) migrations. The San Francisco-area ABC affiliate put together a rather fine story on the program.