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India’s Citizen Scientists Rake in Bird Sightings, Second Only to US, in Global Bird Count

India’s Citizen Scientists Rake in Bird Sightings, Second Only to US, in Global Bird Count

Kochi: Over four days, India’s citizen scientists uploaded more than 52,000 ‘checklists’ – lists of birds they sighted in a span of 15 minutes – as part of the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), an annual global bird counting event. This has placed India in the second spot after the United States, among the 190 countries that participated in the GBBC this year.

Indian birdwatchers sighted 1,069 bird species (of the ~1,300 distributed in the country) during the event conducted between February 17 and 20. Birders from 37 states and union territories participated, with birders from Tamil Nadu submitting the most number of bird checklists (more than 10,000), followed by Kerala.

Counting birds in your backyard

The Great Backyard Bird Count, launched in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, is an annual bird watching event that anyone – from students to birding and nature enthusiasts – can participate in. It is a global citizen science effort wherein participants watch and count birds they see in their backyards – around the places that they live, work or study in – and submit ‘checklists’ of the birds they saw. For each checklist, participants watch birds for at least a 15 minute duration, identify the species they belong to, and count the number of individuals of each species. While collecting this data, it can be either recorded offline – the good old notebook way – or real-time in the eBird mobile application. Offline lists can be later uploaded online. Participants can also log in other details including the activity the birds are engaging in (such as nest building or carrying food) in the app for each checklist.

Van Hasselt’s sunbird. Photo: Rejoice Gassah

The citizen-generated data can be used by scientists to understand bird distribution, and changes in population trends, among others. Such lists, for instance, are what were used to put together the State of India’s Birds report in 2020, the first comprehensive assessment of birds in India which found that India’s bird numbers are declining drastically, with almost 50% of India’s bird species showing a decline.

In India, the GBBC is organised by Bird Count India, a consortium of organisations and groups working together to increase our collective knowledge about bird distributions and populations. This year’s GBBC was conducted between February 17 and 20.

Over these four days, India’s birders reported a total of 1,069 species from 37 states and union territories (as on February 28). They submitted more than 52,000 checklists, covering more than 20,000 birding ‘hotspots’ (public birding areas created by eBird users when many users submit lists from there over time).

This meant that India emerged second among 190 participating countries. Birders from the United States submitted the most number of bird lists: more than 1,92,000.

State participation

State-wise, a preliminary report on February 24 found that Kerala recorded the highest number of checklists (9,786 lists). However, as on February 28, 7.30 pm, Tamil Nadu has surpassed Kerala, with 10,767 lists uploaded. Participants can upload their offline birdlists on the app till March 1.

Oriental turtle dove. Photo: Jageshwar Verma

In terms of species numbers, West Bengal reported the highest, at 493 bird species. These included common species such as the insectivorous black drongo and the greater scaup, a wild duck that migrates to India during winters from Alaska, Siberia and northern Europe.

It’s heartening to see so many people taking an active interest in their bird documentation, said Rahul Kumar, naturalist and birdwatcher from Bihar, in a press release. “Birdwatchers of Bihar have worked hard together to make GBBC a success, and the results show: more species and checklists have been recorded this year compared to the previous year, and it’s safe to say that this event has stoked their passion for birds,” he said.

Asian emerald dove. Photo: Dipayan Chakraborty

Indeed, globally, India had come third for the last two years, behind the United States and Canada, in the number of checklists submitted. This year marked the 11th year that birdwatchers from India are participating in the event.

“One of the highlights of the GBBC is that you can record the birds in your backyard and not have to go to any specific birding location to do so,” said Nameer P.O., professor and dean, College of Climate Change and Environmental Science, Vellanikkara, Kerala, one of the facilitators of Bird Count India in the state. Participation in the event has been increasing over the years in the state. Moreover, eBird also lists the names of leading contributors in terms of checklists on the website.

“Finding their names there encourages participants further,” he said.

Chestbut-headed bee-eater. Photo: Aniket Roy

The GBBC is “an amazing tool” to bring more people to birdwatching and recording bird diversity in ignored or under-reported areas such as homes and common spaces, he added.

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