A bird. A human. A phone. The holy trinity that gives EBird, an online and birding service and app run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, its immense power. EBird has revolutionized not just the way individuals birdwatch, allowing them to make checklists and save them to locations and specific days, but it has also unlocked the potential stored in the knowledge of the collective thousands who birdwatch regularly. Now more than just a hobby, Ebird’s users have turned birdwatching into a citizen science goldmine – the gold being data that places like the San Francisco Estuary institute use to understand our environment and how we might help it.
I’m nearing the end of my internship with the San Francisco Estuary Institute, but in my time here I have gotten to work on projects that will extend beyond my meager ten weeks and whose impacts will extend even farther. One such undertaking has been a piece of a larger Urban Greening project that’s aim is to develop strategies to make urban areas more ecologically viable. My task is to use the wealth of data that EBird has accrued to make hotspot maps of bird biodiversity in Silicon Valley. It feels really good, for some reason, to fight the urbanization and development of the valley with its own technological child.
When I took on this project I was overwhelmed pretty quickly by just the volume of data. We requested all the checklist data from San Mateo and Santa Clara counties – and received more than two million checklists. To add to the growing list of new experiences I’ve had this summer can be ‘working with a data set too big for excel to handle.’ My mentor for this project and the leader of the Urban Greening project as a whole, Erica Spotswood, helped wrangle the data into a more manageable size and shape, and then I imported it into GIS to start playing around with it. It’s incredible the amount of information this amount of data can tell us – about the number of birds in an area, the species richness, the environments where you’re more or less likely to see a particular subset of birds. It’s all right there for us to analyze, and though I feel as if I’ve barely scratched the surface, I’m so happy that I have gotten the chance to try my hand at it.
When you’re staring at a map with thousands upon thousands of data points, it’s easy to forget that each one is a person’s observation, that even in an age when we carry supercomputers in our pockets, people have such a connection to the nature around them. Although perhaps this is unsurprising. Just the other day I came across a poem by Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, that heralds the beauty and simplicity of a blackbird, a testament to the power even the simplest pieces of nature hold.
And this love of birds and nature is apparent in my other projects as well. In researching the history of East Palo Alto for a historical ecology study of that town we found that the area was once named Ravenswood, called in part because of the stark beauty of the glossy black ravens against the otherwise waterfowl-inhabited marshland. The flora and fauna of an area shapes and names its landscape and its history, human and otherwise – a fact that everyone in the Resilient Landscapes portion of SFEI knows. There’s something powerful in observing the animals and plants around us, and this is why the work that SFEI does is so important. With tools like Ebird in their pockets, the people of SFEI will continue to help to keep our cohabitation with the nature mutually beneficial.
Read more at the Out West Student Blog »