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Heinz Kohler
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Statistics in the News: Chapter 3 Finding Existing Data: From Print to the Internet

Counting Birds at the Grass Roots

Have you ever asked yourself how scientists take a census of birds, butterflies, and other elusive creatures of nature? For many decades, they relied on little more than anecdotal evidence supplied by amateur naturalists whose notebooks happened to have recorded a strange abundance of hawks or salamanders at one place and time or a paucity of red headed woodpeckers and tiger swallowtail butterflies at another.

But recently some nature professionals have begun to turn these censuses into a "citizen science," making use of the personal computer and the Internet. Thus, John W. Fitzpatrick (Director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology), Frank Gill (Director of Science at the National Audubon Society), and Jeffrey Glassberg (President of the North American Butterfly Association) have been instrumental in creating interactive online databases where anyone can enter relevant information and instantly see it displayed. Similar to the famous Audubon Christmas Bird Count (which has been with us for a century and has recorded the expansion of grackles and the decline of quail in North America), these new projects attempt to take censuses of elusive subjects.

There is Project Pigeon Watch, Project Feeder Watch, and, above all, the Great Backyard Bird Count that encourages everyone to keep an eye on neighborhoods and enter sightings on computers. To look at the results, visit http://www.birdsource.org (for birds) or http://www.naba.org (for butterflies) or explore some of the organizers' sites, as at http://www.audubon.org and http://www.birds.cornell.edu.

 

Source: Adapted from James Gorman, "Counting Birds at the Grass Roots," The New York Times, December 13, 2001, pp. F1 and 8.

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