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The status of North American birds: a field guide to web resources

March 19, 2011

Birding and bird biology have truly embraced the internet age.  The huge amount of information generated by amateur birders and professional ornithologists has spawned a plethora of websites devoted to birds.  Many sites offer help in bird identification, but that is not my focus here (though I will say as an aside that perhaps the best site for honing your identification skills on the birds of North America (Canada, the USA and Mexico) is Dendroica—check it out!).  Where I spend most of my time, both for business and pleasure, is on some of the myriad sites that provide information on the distribution and status of birds.  After an increasing number of requests (well, a friend of mine asked me about this last week), I offer this short guide to those websites and the information they provide on the distribution, populations and trends of North American birds. This list, presented in no particular order, is restricted to programs that span the continent; there are many other programs that run at more regional scales.

While not devoted to the status of birds (though it does highlight species of conservation concern in its checklists), Avibase is a great place to start any query into the birds of the world.  The brainchild of Denis Lepage of Bird Studies Canada, Avibase is the go-to site for information on checklists, taxonomy and nomenclature—and much more.  Do you want a checklist to the birds of Senegal using the taxonomy of Clements’ 5th edition?  Trying to figure out the taxonomic mess formerly known as the Yellow Wagtail?  Want to know what family the Cuckoo Roller is in, or the Finnish name for the American Robin? Or just need a printable field checklist for your spring break holiday in Arizona? Avibase is where you want to go.  Avibase also has a huge compendium of links to bird websites around the world and a search tool for trip reports.  It is simply an indispensable resource for the serious birder.  And, in case you’re wondering, the Cuckoo Roller is in the Leptosomidae, and the Finns call the American Robin punarintarastas.

NatureServe Explorer
This website is a goldmine of information about the conservation status of bird species (and almost every other species of plant or animal!) in every province and state in North America (and throughout Latin America throughInfoNatura).  It also has range maps and short reports on the conservation biology of many species.

Partners in Flight
Partners in Flight is “a cooperative effort involving partnerships among federal, state and local government agencies, philanthropic foundations, professional organizations, conservation groups, industry, the academic community, and private individuals”  whose aim is to coordinate bird conservation throughout Canada, the United States and Mexico.  As part of its mandate, Partners in Flight has produced a large database that ranks bird species for monitoring and conservation activities.  Among other things, this database includespopulation estimates of each species in each state or province.  These population estimates are largely based on data from the Breeding Bird Survey, and while they generally have wide confidence limits they do provide an idea of how many individual birds are out there (e.g. Dark-eyed Junco: 260,000,000!).  Partners in Flight also developed the concept of Bird Conservation Regions, areas of North America that share similar bird faunas and conservation concerns.  Pete Blancher of Environment Canada and Bird Studies Canada has developed an interesting series of maps for Partners in Flight showing the links between provinces and states and where their breeding birds spend the winter.

Status of Birds in Canada
A new program developed by Environment Canada, this site aims to provide a clear idea of the status of each bird species in Canada.  Information on the site includes population trends, conservation and management issues, which surveys best monitor the species, and the confidence level in population trends generated by those surveys.  About 100 species are feature on the site right now and more will be added over the next few months.

This is the future of birding and the digital world—a site where birders submit their sightings data and the public can visualize those data in a remarkable number of ways— bargraph checklists of provinces, states, counties and birding hotspots; maps at all scales; frequency graphs; abundance graphs; tables; rarity alerts and much more.  eBird recently went global, so you can enter or view data from anywhere on earth—and the database now contains over 4 million checklists listing 9022 species from 223 countries.  There is so much more to eBird that I can’t do it justice here—suffice to say it can be seriously addictive, both in terms of uploading data and trolling through the maps and graphs.  eBird has many regional portals for different countries and states, but all the data is stored and analyzed centrally; for instance if you enter data through the eBird Canada portal, your information will be visible on the primary eBird website and vice versa.

Breeding Bird Survey
This is one of the primary sources of data on the status of North American birds.  The BBS was started in 1966 by Chandler Robbins of the US Fish and Wildlife Service in response to growing concerns about population declines in North American songbirds.  It has grown into a remarkable effort of 4100 volunteers who survey the continent each summer.  The population trends generated from this huge database are available through theUSGS website and the Environment Canada website (trends for Canadian populations can differ slightly between the two sites because of differences in methodology).  You can also view range maps generated by the data, including maps that show increasing or decreasing populations.  If you are interested in doing your own analyses, you can even download the raw data.

Christmas Bird Count
The grandfather of all broadscale bird surveys, the Christmas Bird Count has data on the distribution and numbers of birds across North America back to the year 1900.  You can explore this data by count or by species.  The data has proved valuable for generating long-term population trends, as well as analyses that demonstrate shifts in species’ ranges due to climate change.

Project FeederWatch
Project FeederWatch was started in 1976 by the Long Point Bird Observatory (now Bird Studies Canada).  First called the Ontario Bird Feeder Survey, it was renamed Project FeederWatch when it expanded across the continent in 1987.  It is now jointly run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada and in partnership with the National Audubon Society and Nature Canada.  It has participants (10,000 each year, 16,000 overall) in every state and province in the United States and Canada and generates about 5 million bird records annually.  Participants monitor their backyard bird populations regularly from November through early April each year.  You can explore the data through tables and maps (many of the animated through time, either within years or between years).  The data can be used to calculate population trends, investigate the irruptions of finches and other species, and document range expansions or contractions.  It has also been used to effectively track the spread of bird diseases, such as the mycoplasmal conjunctivitis that swept through eastern House Finch populations in the 1990s.

Great Backyard Bird Count
This program is designed as a simple survey that a wide range of participants can easily participate in.  It is run jointly by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society; Bird Studies Canada is the Canadian partner.  Participants are asked to report the numbers and species of birds they see on any day in a set 4-day period in February.  Over 90,000 checklists are now submitted each year.  It was originally restricted to backyards, but participants were so enthusiastic about the survey that the rules were relaxed and now allow reports from any site in North America.  You can explore the data through online tools similar to those used in Project FeederWatch, including the animated annual maps–here’s a link to the animated map showing the spread of the Eurasian Collared-Dove across North America. There is also an array of online educational materials to help participants identify common birds.

Migration monitoring
In conjunction with programs that count birds on the breeding grounds (such as the Breeding Bird Survey) or on the wintering grounds (such as the Christmas Bird Count), there are programs that count birds as they fly north in spring and south in fall.  The grandfather of these programs in North America is the Long Point Bird Observatory on the north shore of Lake Erie in Ontario.  LPBO began monitoring birds in 1960, and after it was demonstrated that the data could indeed be used to generate meaningful population trends the model was expanded across the continent.  The Canadian Migration Monitoring Network now has more than 25 full members across Canada (and one in the northern USA), most of which have been operating for more than 10 years.  While it is very labour-intensive (generally involving daily censuses and standardized mist-netting for at least two months every year), migration monitoring offers some advantages over other surveys.  It can effectively monitor populations that nest in remote northern forests that are impossible to survey on a broad scale in summer, as well as populations that winter in Central and South America where there are few winter surveys underway.  Fall migration monitoring also offers data on age ratios in birds (since a portion of the birds surveyed are extracted from nets and can be closely examined before release) and thus provides a quick index of breeding success for each species that year.  And because most of these birds are banded, the program contributes data to the calculation of survivorship of songbirds.  You can read a 10-year summary report of the results here.

Breeding Bird Atlases
Many states and provinces (and even some counties) have Breeding Bird Atlas projects which, although they are regional in scope by definition, can provide remarkably detailed and important data on bird distribution and abundance across the continent when looked at together.  These atlas projects are listed on the North American Ornithological Atlas Committee (NORAC) website.  Breeding Bird Atlases endeavour to provide a snap-shot, usually over  a 5-year span, of the distribution and abundance of breeding birds in the region.  The standard atlas generally divides up the area into small squares, then asks participants to go into as many squares as possible and inventory the species there, gathering evidence of breeding from as many species as possible.  Once an atlas has been completed in a state or province, the project can be rerun at some time in the future (usually 20 years) to generate comparative data for trend analyses.  Most earlier atlases were published only as books but more and more atlases (even those in still in the data-gathering phase) now have data displayed online as well.  A good example of an online atlas is that from Ontario.  Here are the websites of some atlases in progress, if you’re looking for an exciting place to go for your summer holidays:  British ColumbiaManitobaOhioQuébecSouth Dakota.

Raw Data
If you are a real raw data junkie, you can download data from most of these programs online.  There are varying levels of permission needed, but a lot of data (e.g. eBird) is freely available at the click of a link.  The Avian Knowledge Network is the primary online source for data from across the Western Hemishpere; for Canadian data you can also go to the NatureCounts website.

Legal Status
For information on the legal status of species of conservation concern, go to the following sites:

Canada Species At Risk Act

United States Endangered Species Act

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