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Birds: Good Egg
Infographic: King of the Mill
Interview with Jessica Zelt: In the Cards
Pollution: Clean Streak
Endangered Species: Leap Frog

Backstreet bird; counting on blood suckers; an American Ecoterrorist, more.

David Deal

In the Cards 
A new project is putting 90 years of birdwatchers’ notes online.

Jessica Zelt has an epic job. As coordinator of the U.S. Geological Survey’s North American Bird Phenology Program, she’s responsible for six million personal observations about bird migrations—some dating back to 1880—jotted down on 2-inch-by-5-inch note cards and now stored in government filing cabinets. With more than 1,200 volunteers, Zelt oversees the scanning and transcription of those records, the most comprehensive data set of its kind. Audubon spoke with Zelt about this ambitious project.

Audubon: Wells Cooke, a teacher and scientist interested in bird migration, started this program in 1880. Who helped him collect data?
Zelt: The program had about 3,000 participants at its height, in the late 1880s and early 1890s. This included well-known ornithologists and naturalists, and just ordinary citizen scientists who were recording information around their areas.

Scanning and transcribing six million cards is an enormous undertaking. How much progress have you made?
About 331,000 cards have been scanned so far. It’s only been five months now, and volunteers have already transcribed 212,920 cards.

Who are the volunteers?
We have participants from the U.S., the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Canada, Ireland, Australia, France, Belgium, India. It’s pretty amazing. Many are amateur birders, but they all share a deep appreciation for the environment. Most people doing the scanning fall into one of three categories: retirees, young professionals, or high school and college students doing community service.

How will you use the data?
This program is looking at how climate change is affecting migrating bird arrival and departure dates. Once this information goes into our database, we can analyze it, along with weather and climate data, to see if there are long-term patterns and shifts. It’s possible that climate change affects certain species more than others. Being able to highlight those species and change our own lives to lessen those effects, that’s always a goal.

Are any of the species now extinct?
Yes, eight, including the great auk, the Carolina parakeet, and the ivory-billed woodpecker. It’s interesting to see that these birds were in abundance and then see their numbers dwindle. We also have species like house sparrows and European starlings that were introduced to the U.S. and whose numbers rise in abundance and distribution over time.

Volunteer at the North American Bird Phenology Program.

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