Birds in data: Counting cuckoos
and other stories

Shamsheer Yousaf March 20, 2019

Many legends abound about the monsoon in India — but none so delightful as that around the Jacobin pied cuckoo. A slender black and white cuckoo, the bird is easily identifiable with its long tail and distinctive crest. Even in flight, one can easily spot the bird by the white patches on its wings and tail edges.

More importantly, it has an unmistakable call. Shrill, sharp, and metallic. “Peew Piu Piu…Peew Piu Piu…Peew Piu Piu”. But for many, the cries of the bird, locally known as Chataka, is music to their ears — for it is believed to herald the beginning of the monsoon in India.

The bird appears in central and north India by the end of May or early June. The rains can’t be far behind.

Indian literature is abound with references to the Chataka and monsoon.

So why do the rain clouds follow the Chataka’s cries?

The legends have an explanation. The bird cannot quench its thirst from water on the ground in lakes and rivers, as it cannot bend its neck down. The reason being, a hole in its neck forces it to keep its beak upturned at all times to cover it. The beaks of the bird can swallow water only if it falls from the skies.

So, for several months, the Chataka lives without water. But once it gets thirsty, it calls out to the clouds for rain. “Peew Piu Piu…Peew Piu Piu…Peew Piu Piu.” The bird is expecting rain any time soon .

In the Mahabharata, the expectations of a devotee are compared to the eager expectation of rain of the Chataka:

Counting Birds in the Sky

Is there any truth to the chataka legend? Does the pied cuckoo herald the arrival of the monsoon?

A few attempts have been made in the early part of the 20th century to answer this question. In 1928, a paper in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society tried but reached no conclusion owing to lack of data.

“It is obvious that we need a great deal more information about this bird in India, both to its distribution and its status. It is so common, so easily recognised by its handsome plumage and so conspicuous with its loud calls that much of the required information must be already in the possession of the members of the Society.”

For many birders, the pied cuckoo legend has always been intriguing.

Suhel Quader, who works at the Nature Conservation Foundation in Bengaluru, has been attempting to study this for almost a decade. Growing up in Hyderabad, he had heard the legend quite often. “I was a young birder, and my mentor would say ‘there’s the pied cuckoo calling’,” he recounts.

“And then he would say, ‘I bet within seven days it is going to rain’,” he adds. “I don’t remember now whether those predictions came true, but I thought it would be nice to see if the data actually backs the folklore.”

This is where Bird Count India (BCI), co-founded by Quader, comes in. With more than half a million bird lists – 693,256 as of 18 March 2019 – comprising nearly eight million bird sightings, BCI runs India’s largest online wildlife database.

MigrantWatch, a project to track migrant bird movements across India.

Bird Count India, the successor to MigrantWatch, that expanded its ambit beyond migrants to all birds.

The database, running on the global bird sighting platform eBird, has been crowdsourced from a 10,000 strong bird watching community across India — making it one of the most successful cases of citizen science in the country.

The idea of BCI goes back to 2007, when Quader was at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore. He worked with birdwatchers on a project on migrant birds called MigrantWatch.

“We thought let’s try something simple. Just ask people when they first see migrant birds coming in the winter. And the last day they sight birds when they leave in the spring,” says Quader.

Volunteers during a bird survey (Image: Bird Count India)

Volunteer Coding, Sighting 1.0

The project ran for about five to six years. While there have been a few ‘crowdsourced’ projects, like the Asian Waterbird census that began in 1987, this was the first one in India that started off using relatively new internet tools.

MigrantWatch reached out to people through various birdwatching forums. Initially, the platform was pretty low-tech, but improved quickly. “It went from ‘Okay, email me your sightings’ to a very simple webform in two or three weeks,” says Quader.

Birdwatchers who worked in the IT industry were some of the most enthusiastic volunteers. Many from Bengaluru contributed while an engineer from Nagpur built the system that MigrantWatch ran on. “He said that was his contribution and did it for us for free,” says Quader.

One of the birds documented by MigrantWatch was the Jacobin pied cuckoo, and this was the first attempt at verifying the folklore. The team looked at how the sightings of the pied cuckoos correlated with the advent of the monsoon. But they suffered from limited data – just 363 sightings were made between 2007 and 2011.

This was not enough. Monsoons differ in the time of arrival and strength year to year. And the data they had was not enough to establish the correlation. They would have to wait.

The eBird dashboard

By 2013, Quader and his colleagues realised that they needed to think a little bigger as far as MigrantWatch was concerned.

First, they needed to look at all birds in the country instead of only migrant birds.

Second, they needed to look for a new platform – preferably one which they didn’t have to develop and maintain. A couple of candidates were evaluated, but the most promising was eBird. Developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, eBird gathers in one place all the observations from many birdwatchers, which encapsulates the changes in bird distribution and population in a meaningful way. A year earlier, eBird, which until then was available only in North America, had been opened up to all regions.

The team that ran MigrantWatch also wanted the new project to be independent of any single organisation. That was when Bird Count India (BCI) was set up.

BCI functions unlike other such projects in that it exists only as a website, run by a couple of passionate birdwatchers. For one, BCI is not a registered organisation. There is one paid position (currently vacant) at the office of the Nature Conservation Foundation in Bengaluru to work on BCI. Quader co-ordinates the project, while simultaneously working on projects on citizen science and public engagement at NCF.

A large, orderly gaggle of Birders

At the launch, BCI wrote to institutions and organisations, including Facebook groups, Google groups, and Yahoo! Groups, inviting them to be part of the platform, says Quader. “The response was wonderful!”

BCI took off in January 2014, and since then its growth has exceeded expectations. Quader says that there has been a massive leap between 2013 and today on what we know about India’s birds in terms of seasonality and abundance.

One reason why eBird has taken off is that it makes the core task of birdwatching – the creation of a list of birds sighted – easy. Traditionally, a birdwatcher would jot down the names of the bird she sees in a notebook.

What happens to these lists? Sometimes, these checklists are passed on to other birders. In rare circumstances, they make it to bird atlases. But often, these observations just remain in the corner of a cupboard, or in some attic, until they are dusted off again decades later.

This is where BCI’s adoption of the eBird platform has made a difference. With eBird, it’s convenient to use the app as a digital notebook. “I confess that for me and my friends who do this (keeping a list) religiously, that’s a part of the attraction,” says Quader. “It is just a very, very convenient tool.”

For the first time, bird enthusiasts, conservationists, and researchers in India have access to real time information on not just the distribution of bird species, but also their abundance. Anyone, including enthusiasts, can look at this massive data, and use it for birding.  

For instance, birdwatchers use eBird to figure out good bird-watching spots. Open the eBird website, and the top locations for sightings in a state or around a city, along with the birds typically seen at that time of the year, can be easily discerned. 

“Birdwatchers tend to be a bit obsessive. The more obsessive ones among us will look up these birds in our field guides and see what they look like, or download the bird calls from a website to identify them by sound,” says Quader.

Work on eBird by BCI began only in the middle of 2013, but in little over five years, through campaigns, bird events, and activities, it has already made India the fourth largest country on the eBird platform. It is just behind Australia with around 800,000 checklists while Canada with around 3.8 million checklists, and the US with nearly 24 million checklists are far ahead. 

But, the Chataka legend?

In 2017, with the widespread adoption of eBird, the BCI decided to have another go at the pied cuckoo legend. Quader’s colleague M D Madhusudan, an ecologist and eBirder, was working on this.

“Madhu said that analysis and statistics is all fine, but it’s very dry,” says Quader. “He said let’s try and produce something that anybody can look up and say ‘Wow. I can see the pattern over here’.”

So, instead of a formal analysis, they wanted to try something different.

Madhusudan set out to work on this. He used data on rainfall between 1981 and 2017 from the Climate Hazards Group InfraRed Precipitation with Station dataset for the monsoon visualisation. He also used publicly available datasets from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission for topography. For the visualisation, he made use of Google Earth Engine and R, a programming language for statistical modelling.

Most importantly, he used the eBird database for data on pied cuckoo sightings. He looked at 8,000 records of the pied cuckoo between 2011 to 2016.

All of this was combined to produce this animation.

Animation by MD Madhusudan for Bird Count India

As the animation shows, between 1 April and 31 July, the progress of monsoon and the sightings for pied cuckoo go hand in hand. Before the monsoon, pied cuckoo sightings are restricted to South India until mid-May. Once the monsoon breaks and spreads across the subcontinent, the pied cuckoos also spread. At the peak of monsoon, the entire subcontinent is covered by both the cuckoos and rainfall.

The Chataka is, indeed, a harbinger of the monsoon.

Bird Population Health

The explosive growth of BCI has led to a finer understanding of India’s bird populations.

From over half a million lists, we can now answer a few questions. Like what the most common birds in India are, and how they vary from region to region.

If we look at how frequently a species appears in checklists, the Common Myna is the commonest species in India.

But once we drill down to regions, the red-vented bulbul is the top species in three regions: North & Northwest India, Central India, and East & Northeast India. The rose-ringed parakeet is also as common in North & Northwest India while the house crow is the most common bird in South India. The common Myna is the only bird to make it to the top five species in all regions.

Quader says that today we have enough data to look at the health of bird populations across India. “We can start thinking seriously on a comprehensive report on the state of India’s birds. We can find out how India’s birds are doing as a whole.” This report, which would be the baseline report on the state of India’s birds, is expected to come out in July 2019.

In several European countries, data generated by birdwatchers actually goes back into feeding policy. “In the UK, they have, as part of their government’s multiple indicators on how the country is performing, some economic and social indicators as well as some indicators for the state of nature,”, says Quader.

The information collected by birdwatchers go directly into these indicators of nature every year.

In the UK biodiversity indicators for 2018, besides indicators on habitats, pollution, and ecosystem services, a major indicator is “Birds of the wider countryside and at sea”. This is further subdivided into indicators on birds found on farmlands, woodlands, wetlands, at sea, and in winter.

In fact, of all the indicators in the UK, the data on birds is more extensive than other species. Robust information is available on 215 species, of which 103 are bird species.

The Diclofenac Effect

The indicators of nature are important. What is common today can very, very rapidly become a catastrophe,” says Quader.

What keeps conservationists and researchers on their toes is the threat of a repeat of a crisis like the one faced by the Indian vultures in the 90s that took everyone by surprise.

In the 1980s, the population of the white-rumped vulture was estimated to be about 80 million in India. But by the 90s, it was found that the population of these birds were not just decreasing, but crashing at an accelerating pace. From 80 million, the number dropped dangerously to a few thousands.

White-rumped Vulture (Photo By David Raju CC Wikipedia)

That was a complete catastrophe, says Quader. “It happened so rapidly that it took some time before someone could figure out that vultures were really declining.”

After a long investigation, it was found that a common inflammatory drug Diclofenac administered to livestock was fatal to the vultures. A ban on the drug and an alternative that did not affect vultures was found.

But it took nearly 15 years to diagnose and take action.

With eBird, BCI could flag species that have the potential to become threatened. With thousands of eyes and ears on the ground, and you can identify problems early on. For instance, you can classify species based on how they’re doing year on year.

“We can put in place a system where we detect problems as early as possible,” says Quader.

A Peacock singing in the Rain

This data can also be used to establish certain changes in the natural environment.

The most visible, and audible, example of this is the peacock. Peacocks are typically found in drier, less dense vegetation, as its trailing feathers need a lot of space. This makes Kerala traditionally an unfriendly environment for peafowls.

“These are birds that were not formerly reported from Kerala, but whose distribution in bird books refer to dry tracts”, he says.

When Nameer and his group looked at eBird data, they found that until 2010, peafowls were limited to the leeward side of the Western Ghats, where rainfall is lower. But five years later, the peafowl had expanded its habitat across the state. “Preliminary results show that there is definitely an increase in peafowl in Kerala”, he says.

Nameer and his team also found that there were 35 other species, typically found in drier parts of the country, that are now being seen and reported in Kerala. Species like the Steppe Eagle and the red-headed bunting, normally found in dry-lands, are now found in the state.

Climate change could be one reason for the increase, says Nameer. There are several factors for why Kerala is getting drier. Rivers and water bodies are running dry. While the pre-monsoon heat is typical of Kerala’s monsoon cycle, the state is getting dry post-monsoon faster than before. Deficient rainfall, El-nino effect, and the effect of heat islands in a highly urbanised state is all adding up.

Nameer stresses that the analysis is still going on. “We are still looking at other variables that could be influencing this distribution”, he says. “Right now it would be a bit premature to conclude that all this is due to climate change”.

In the Himalayas, climate change has resulted in birds migrating later into the year, climbing higher, or moving sideways and abandoning traditional habitats. For researchers trying to tease out these trends, eBird has become a pivotal tool.e

Using different scenarios as predicted by climate models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Kaushik is looking at how changing climatic factors would change the distribution ranges of Himalayan birds in future.

In particular, she is looking at pheasants and using eBird, which has abundant and widespread data on the species, she is preparing a model.

One challenge for researchers using eBird data is quality control. For instance, some birdwatchers may be good at identifying birds, others not so much. Kaushik looked for cases where birders reported the pheasant typically not found in that area. “I downloaded distribution maps and threw all the GPS locations from eBird on the map. Whatever sightings lay outside (the distribution map), I had to go back and check why those errors were there,” she says. She had to check each one of those entries for correctness, relying on associated media and field notes, and sometimes, the reputation of the birder .

There are other sanity checks that she performs. Birders, after recording a GPS location, move a few kilometers and then make entries for birds. “So I screened checklists that had too much time logged in for sampling, say, five hours,” she says. Other errors had to be similarly weeded out.

The process can be time-consuming. In Kaushik’s case, it took almost six months to clean the data before she could start working on it.

Showing Truth to Power

eBird can also serve as a platform for studying disease outbreaks concerning birds. “Earlier, the knowledge of where and at what time of the year different species of birds migrated was scattered in people’s brains across the country. Now, when this information is collated together on a public platform, it has uses that even I had never conceived,” says Quader.

In 2014, an outbreak of bird flu (avian influenza) was reported in Kerala around major wetlands of Alappuzha, Pathanamthitta and Kottayam districts. The Animal Husbandry department responded to this by culling birds found around these regions — and in particular poultry birds. Entire farmlands were sanitised. The largest culling took place at the Government Turkey Farm at Kureeppuzha, where 8,000 turkey birds had to be culled.

Initial assessments by the Animal Husbandry department suggested that the virus was spread via migratory ducks and geese flying in the area. Now migratory ducks and geese are known to carry bird flu virus, but there has been very little research on whether these birds can serve as vectors to transmit the pathogen to poultry.

A few birdwatchers found this claim by Animal Husbandry department strange. Praveen J, a birdwatcher based in Bengaluru, but who is leading the BCI effort in Kerala, says “We hadn’t noticed any migratory ducks or geese in the state when bird flu broke out in the state”.

So he and his cohorts dug into the eBird database and looked for records of migratory birds in Kerala. They found that the two most common migratory duck species (Northern Pintails and Garganey) only made rare appearances before the outbreak of bird flu. Though a few migratory water fowls were present, they were small in number and there were no reported deaths.

Nameer, who was also involved in this case, says “We clearly demonstrated to the state government and other concerned departments that the migratory birds which were alleged to be carriers of the H1N1 virus, arrived only subsequently to the actual reported incident of the disease”, he says.

The birdwatchers issued a statement throwing doubt at the animal husbandry department’s theory. “The government then stopped mentioning this issue in public,” says Praveen.

Conservation groups have also used the accumulated data in eBird to petition the courts.

Last year, a project to redevelop government quarters in Lutyens’ Delhi was criticised as nearly 14,000 trees would have been cut to build nearly 25,000 flats. Those who opposed the project saw an opening in the Environmental Impact Assessment(EIA). The EIA specified that only 15 species were seen in the area. One of the petitioners got in touch with Pankaj Gupta of Delhi Bird Foundation, an NGO that has worked on protecting several birding habitats in and around New Delhi

Referring to the EIA, Gupta says “It became a laughing stock for us birders”. “Standing in my garden, I can see more than 15 species”, he adds with a laugh.

Using eBird, Gupta prepared a note which showed that these parts of Delhi, and Kidwainagar in particular, had about 60 to 65 species. “Anybody with a sound mind about Delhi would understand that 60-65 species in a city is nothing great”, says Gupta.

“It is normal”.

Gupta has also used eBird data in another case. About 40 kilometres outside Delhi lies the Basai Wetland, an unprotected area spread over 900 acres that is teeming with birdlife in winter. In 2017, the Municipal Corporation of Gurugram (MCG) received permission to build a waste processing plant there.

A few birdwatchers and conservation groups took notice and petitioned the National Green Tribunal. Now, Basai hasn’t been notified as a wetland by the Haryana government. The MCG claims that Basai is just a “piece of barren land where a few birds occasionally roost… there will be no loss of flora or fauna by setting up the plant there”.

To counter the MCG’s claim, the Delhi Bird Foundation submitted data from eBird to show the extensive birdlife that has been recorded at Basai.

Gupta says that the NGT has accepted the list as submitted by them. “There was no question raised in the court regarding the birds being there or not. It was just taken on face value”, says Gupta. “NGT recognises eBird as a source of data”.

On the case front, the Foundation has received a setback. NGT has disposed the case as the rules for classifying wetlands have changed. The court asked the Haryana government to relook at the application to declare the Basai as a wetland.

Go Wide, Go Deep

BCI has made efforts to improve eBird data in two key ways. One is to expand coverage, and the other is to improve historical data.

Looking at coverage, certain areas stand out for the abundance of information. The southern states have done really well, in particular Goa, Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu. Pockets of Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, and Maharashtra are also covered well by birders. The Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan has the highest number of observations among bird sanctuaries in India. Within states, Important Bird Areas (IBA) are quite popular with birders.

But large gaps remain. Back in 2014, there were major gaps in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Telangana and Maharashtra. In parts of Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, and Kashmir, the coverage was practically empty. And barring a few sanctuaries, north-east India was a black hole for bird sightings.

But with increasing adoption, these gaps are filling gradually. While 40% of districts in India did not have a single list in 2014, that number is now down to less than 3% — just 17 districts.

Hours put into birding has also improved across the board. In 2014, 61% of districts had less than 10 hours of birding, this has reduced to 35%. While 87% of districts had less than 100 hours of birding, this is now down to 77%.

Today, BCI feels that there is great opportunity to improve coverage in the North East, parts of East Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Jharkhand.

The coverage varies across the year. The best coverage is in January and February as long-distance migrants arrive in winter. The coverage declines as it gets closer to summer when the days get hotter and the birds leave.

Aasheesh Pittie, an ornithologist from Hyderabad, who edits Indian BIRDS, puts this in context. “There are still huge chunks of the country where birders have not set foot till now. This is visually presented on eBird maps. Birders nearby, or the itinerant ones, should begin birding there,” he says.

“Bird distributions is eBird’s strength. Bird movements is another, provided enough records are uploaded, e.g., local migrations, continental migrations, timing of arrivals and departures, etc,” he adds.

The availability of data also brings some dangers — poachers. One area that BCI and eBird have been careful around is sensitive species.

Wary of poachers exploiting eBird data, many responsible birders would intentionally mis-locate checklists, or mark these species on a large landscape.

But eBird has adapted their software to ensure that species marked as sensitive are hidden from checklist views, except to certain verified observers. Even in that case, the checklist is shown only at a landscape of 400 sq km. For India, species that are marked sensitive include the Indian Bustard, Saker Falcon, Derby Parakeet, Lesser Florican, Yellow Weaver, Green Avadavat, and the Yellow-breasted Bunting.

The Great
Indian Bustard

But eBird has adapted their software to ensure that species marked as sensitive are hidden from checklist views, except to certain verified observers. Even in that case, the checklist is shown only at a landscape of 400 sq km. For India, species that are marked sensitive include the Indian Bustard, Saker Falcon, Derby Parakeet, Lesser Florican, Yellow Weaver, Green Avadavat, and the Yellow-breasted Bunting.

The Great Indian Bustard

Gaming Birding

To improve coverage, BCI is cultivating birdwatchers through its challenges and online events. This element of competition has spurred birdwatchers to go out more often. “On one front, it is a competitive game. Who has uploaded more checklists? Who seen more species? It nudges birders to spend more time in the field; visit new destinations, improve their skills. On the other, those who have uploaded their data can access it in various formats on the eBird platform,” says Pittie.

Pittie says that seeing your bird sightings on maps, or on calendars gives a huge boost to birdwatchers. “These are tools that were not available with such easy access when I began birding, and younger birders today are plain lucky,” he says.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is held every year across the world, during which thousands of birdwatchers look for birds for four days in February. In 2018, United States led with more than 110,000 birdlists, followed by Canada with more than 14,000 birdlists. India was a close third, with 13,576 birdlists.

Sometimes, these events are localised for a particular region. The Pongal Bird Count has been running successively for five years in Tamil Nadu, for instance, where birders are encouraged to go birding and submit birdlists for four days around Pongal.

Another event is the Campus bird count, held in April every year, which targets schools, colleges, and campuses of educational and training institutions.

Pallikaranai marsh, a birding hotspot in Chennai. (Vinoth Selvaraj CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Besides these annual events, there are monthly challenges that BCI likes to throw at its birders. In 2015, birders were asked to upload 20 birdlists from a single location within a month. The idea was that this would provide a more complete picture of the location where the challenge was undertaken.

A more light-hearted challenge was the Last Birder Standing, which began on New Year’s Day in 2017. Birders were challenged to create at least one complete birdlist everyday, for as many days as possible. Across India, 159 signed up. At the time of the publication of this story, which is more than two years,, at least ten birders are still left standing.

To encourage birdwatchers, BCI has also conducted over 40 workshops in 28 states with local birding groups. BCI staff go over bird documentation and monitoring with these groups. Accumulating the casual observations helps develop a better understanding of the birds in the area. “So we talk to local groups about how they can monitor their own local bird life in important wetlands around them,” says Quader.

Now, BCI is toying with the idea of using geocaching — a form of a treasure hunting using GPS. Players would have to go to a location and find a tagged object that has been placed at the location.

Taking the game as an inspiration, researchers are now looking at using geocaching with virtual objects to encourage birders to go to places that they typically don’t visit. “Birders go to lakes, forests, and so on. But very few go to farmlands,” says Quader. “In order to understand what’s happening with birds of the country as a whole, we need to understand what’s happening at all habitats.”

The events are not just at the field level. There is also a series of challenges asking people to look at the massive data that is being generated. Data challenges are held regularly, but they’ve met with limited success. Quader admits that they have not managed to get the researcher community very excited. “That’s going to be a major push now for this year and the next year,” he says.

Bird Lists circa 1974

The other major drive by BCI is to improve historical data. Though eBird has been in use in India since 2014, there are lots of birdlists out there prior to that period. BCI has been trying to get these lists uploaded onto eBird.

“So we’re sort of using the accumulated data as a time machine — because people have gone back to their notebooks and are uploading old lists,” says Quader.

Updating historical data quickly enables a long view of the ornithology of the country, limited to the areas the birder has visited,” explains Pittie.

Many birders have taken up this effort, like A M K Bharos, a 74 year old retired government employee from Raipur in Chhattisgarh.

Encouraged by his father, Bharos took up birding in the 1970s, and has produced many papers on bird distributions. He started off as a contributor to MigrantWatch, and when eBird launched, he signed up immediately.

Pittie has been ardently advocating birders to share these notebooks. “The question that I always asked myself, and one which I would urge all birders to ask themselves, is, what is my data worth if it sits inside my desk?,” he says. “But if one’s birding is an enjoyable pastime, then it behooves sharing.”




A checklist from Aasheesh Pittie’s notebook from 1997











Pittie has been ardently advocating birders to share these notebooks. “The question that I always asked myself, and one which I would urge all birders to ask themselves, is, what is my data worth if it sits inside my desk?,” he says. “But if one’s birding is an enjoyable pastime, then it behooves sharing.”

A checklist from Aasheesh Pittie’s notebook from 1997

Diving into old notebooks, Bharos has uploaded old lists to eBird. “Besides Chhattisgarh, I have visited many birding places in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh,” he says. “Very few people, leaving aside old publications by the British, have data as old as mine.”.

So far, Bharos has uploaded nearly 2,400 birdlists, with sightings for over 500 species that date back to 1974-75.

“Many lists are still pending for posting,” he says.

With regions with poor data on birds, these notebooks can be quite illuminating.

Quader recounts a conversation: “I was talking to a gentleman from Assam. He grew up around Kaziranga and now lives in England. He says his notebooks from when he was a teenager are back there (Assam). He’s got a lot of these birdlists from the mid-90s onwards from the Northeast which is actually a rather data poor region.”

An Atlas for Birds

In 2014, a team of birdwatchers from Kerala approached BCI and told them they wanted to do something meaningful and asked for ideas. “We told them that a bird atlas is a possibility,”, says Quader.

Building a bird atlas for a region can improve the quality of bird data for that region. Birders have their biases — typically, they tend to be drawn to areas that are historically well endowed with birds. And this leaves large parts of the country bereft of coverage.

One way to solve this is to prepare a bird atlas for a region.

In a bird atlas, a region is broken down into regular grids and volunteers survey these regions systematically. “You can’t choose where you go birdwatching,” says Quader. “But where you go to survey is defined by a protocol such that the entire state is covered uniformly,” he adds.

(Note: For more on Kerala’s bird atlas, read this earlier story by FactorDaily.)

Once completed, a comparison of the results of the bird atlas with that of casual birding can reveal the extent of bias among birders, and even how to correct for it. “Analytical and statistical methods can be used to correct for these sort of biases,” Quader says.

With the atlas, we today have a very fine scale understanding of which birds are found where in the state.

Spot-billed Pelicans gathering to roost on a tree at Jakkur lake, Bengaluru, India. (T. R. Shankar Raman CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikemedia Commons)

With the atlas, we today have a very fine scale understanding of which birds are found where in the state.

According to Nameer, who is spearheading the atlas project, eBird has the maneuverability to handle the voluminous data the atlas project is generating. “One of the best things with eBird is that it is highly user friendly. It also has several features, which enable a researcher to use that data for doing various different kinds of analysis”, he says.

Later, when a second atlas is prepared, it would let researchers and policy makers see, at a very fine scale, what has changed over time. Preparing an atlas is a big effort, involving a lot of man hours. So an atlas is repeated in a region anywhere between 10 to 25 years.

Moreover, by overlaying other information like that obtained from remote sensing over these changes, you can draw out correlations in the data. One of the big concerns in Kerala, for example, is that with paddy fields making way for residential and other construction there are rapid changes in bird populations. Quader says that this information can be used to predict what’s going to happen to bird distribution with the current rate of urbanisation.

Bird Count India is an example of how science is brought closer to the general population. “I think that the increased adoption of eBird by birders is a healthy sign of participation in a greater project than birding for oneself”, says Pittie.

“It is a wonderful citizen-science project.”

Now citizen science is a term bandied about a lot in conservation circles, but many claims ring hollow as engagement can be superficial. Quader says that citizen science can be very transactional — “I’m the scientist, and you are the volunteer. You do the volunteering, I will do the science,” he says. “But that doesn’t harness the power of what can be done by the citizen and the scientist together,” he adds.

Quader is excited by projects like the Kerala Bird Atlas, not just for the value of the data, but for its demonstration of how citizen science can be meaningful. So, BCI is now increasingly looking at citizen science as a way to enable local populations and conservation groups to take the data and work with it themselves. One project underway would enable easier access to the eBird database, so that regular people can work on it using accessible tools like Excel, without much programming.

And the spirit of Bird Count India is spreading beyond just this project. Other citizen science projects are now underway that is looking at a similar model.. Season Watch is a new project, housed under NCF, that is encouraging students to observe common trees and record cycles of flowering and fruiting.

When they do that in the weeks ahead, they just might hear the familiar Peew Piu Piu…Peew Piu Piu…Peew Piu Piu call of the Jacobin pied cuckoo. This time, they will know that the chataka heralding the arrival of the monsoon is no legend. It’s as true as the birds in the sky.

Updated at 11:07 am on March 20, 2019  This story was updated for three errors/changes: One, we corrected the spelling of Aasheesh Pittie's name. His first name had been misspelt as Aashish earlier. Two, we added the graphic 'India's contribution to the eBird database is growing at an accelerating pace'. Three, while laying out the story, four paragraphs of the body text went missing – we're calling it the backend voodoo for now because we don't know what happened. These have been added back. The paragraphs begin "For the first time, bird enthusiasts, conservationists, and researchers in India have access to real time information..." and end "...and the US with nearly 24 million checklists are far ahead." Apologies for the confusion.
Updated at 11:36 am on March 21, 2019  This story was updated to remove an edit instruction that got carried in the body text of the copy.

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