Birds & Birders in Pandemic

At the time of this writing, it has been almost exactly seven months since the first presumptive case of COVID-19 in the state was announced by Oregon officials.   

With cases in the state, nation, and globe still climbing and restrictions surrounding travel and other activities loosening and retightening to varying extents, the end of this summer season truly feels a lazy, hazy, crazy place right now. It’s just as good a time as any to reflect back on the early period of this tumultuous spell we’re all living in.   

Amidst an upturned world back in March, many people took solace in nature, and especially in the nature they could see from their backyards. While anxieties mounted as disease spread, it was contrasted with hope that the more-than-human world was getting a bit of a breather while humanity slowed down.   

During the spring, it was not uncommon to see articles on the improved air quality some regions were experiencing due to decreased car traffic, and surely you heard a story from one friend or another that they sighted wildlife that they had never seen in town before. But now that things are moving at a dizzying pace again, can we tell if wildlife at large actually rebounded from human impact during this time?  

While surely there are many avenues to travel down to address this topic locally, why not be Oregonian about it and put a bird on it.   

In doing so, it turns out, we can also learn a lot about how Oregon State University ornithologists are working to create a 10-year benchmark of bird distributions and abundances across the state, how lay people can contribute meaningfully to science and conservation by engaging in birding, and how a more accessible world of birding might be developing.   

Birds and Birders in a Pandemic  

First off, let’s delve into the bottom of the question at hand.   

When I learned that OSU’s Bob and Phyllis Mace Professor of Watchable Wildlife, Douglas Robinson and his team, have spent the last 10 years surveying birds across the state of Oregon, I figured his experience might lend well to exploring this topic, and perhaps a bit more deeply than my next-door-neighbor’s recent anecdote of how a group of wild turkeys have extended their visiting hours since the pandemic began.   

“My guess overall is it’s been very similar to other years,” Robinson begins. “Early after the shutdown started it was a little quieter, with less traffic noise, so it might have been easier to hear the birds. But as soon as we started to resume mostly normal activities it just went right back to being like most years.”   

“I haven’t really noticed any major changes in numbers of birds,” he expands with an example: “There’s one place I survey probably 3-5 times a week, and it seems like a normal year to me compared to what I’ve seen over the last 15 years there.”  

What’s not been usual in the bird world these days, however, is the number of new birders on the scene, who are contributing their ornithological observations to the online project created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird.  

For example, on Saturday, May 9, before any counties in Oregon ventured into the phases of reopening, eBird hosted a Global Big Day that received the greatest participation it has during the project’s existence.   

In birding, a Big Day is an effort to count as many birds as possible in 24 hours. It may be done individually, but in pre-COVID times, it often had a social element to it. Given that that was out of the question, eBird was well suited to continue this valuable effort in the ways possible. 32 percent more people contributed to the pandemic’s Global Big Day than did in the 2019 event, with almost 9,000 people joining eBird for the first time to participate.  

While the shutdown may not have had a long-lasting positive impact for birds, Robinson is not chagrined about this. “I think the most positive story is that more people engaged with observing wildlife around them because they had a little bit more time. They found eBird, and they found that it’s fun to look in eBird and find what other people are seeing, and that it’s fun to put your own data in and keep track of what birds you have in your own yard. That is all really wonderful.”   

Oregon 2020 Project  

 Robinson’s familiarity with eBird isn’t just a hobby for him, but is an important source of data for his team’s research. Before entering his role as the Mace Professor of Watchable Wildlife, Robinson proposed to OSU’s Department of Fish and Wildlife faculty—who choose who is awarded these endowment funds in five-year cycles—an ambitious project he coined the Oregon 2020 Project.   

“The main objective of the Oregon 2020 Project is to create a benchmark, or baseline, measurement of the distribution and abundances of birds in Oregon, and to do it in a way that is exactly repeatable so that anybody in the future, whether it’s decades or centuries from now, can come back and repeat our surveys and therefore very clearly understand how birds have responded to change—whether that’s environmental change or human-caused change, any kind of change,” Robinson explains.  

With funding secured, Robinson and two graduate students set out to conduct bird surveys across the whole state. While their team alone was able to survey 11,000 locations, the Oregon 2020 Project was boosted beyond their ability and time by the help of approximately 1,000 amateur bird watchers on eBird who contributed about another 30,000 locations. Altogether, well over 100,000 birds and 350 species were counted during this huge data gathering effort.    

While the struggles of scientists to get their jobs done amidst pandemic restrictions has circulated the news often, the Oregon 2020 Project was fortunate to not be so stymied, as the timing of Oregon’s shutdown coincided with a transition into a more data analysis heavy focus. Still, things changed for the team, which had to nix some more community-minded County Blitzes, where the OSU ornithologists and volunteer birders traditionally embarked on long weekend birding and camping trips together to survey more remote areas.   

Citizen Science Counts  

While the opportunity to be involved in group birding right now is limited, the contributions of birders to eBird during the pandemic cannot be overemphasized.   

“What I always tell people is that eBird is very inclusive,” Robinson says. “They leave the doors wide open for anybody to contribute data. The time to be exclusive is at the data analysis stage, not at the data gathering stage. I think eBird is really smart because they want everybody to love birds and contribute what they know about birds, so they don’t have a whole bar you have to climb over in order to contribute data. It’s really up to the researcher and the data analysts to decide what’s too messy to use.”   

How can one make sure not to be too messy in their eBird entries? Make sure you are as accurate as possible with your bird identification, the numbers of each species you find, where you observed the birds, and how much time you spent looking for them. According to Robinson, “as long as those things are as accurate as you can possibly make them, then the data are valuable.”  

In addition to adding value to scientific pursuits, keeping track of birds can lead to a greater awareness of the value of conservation measures. While I had been pondering if people’s desire to cling onto positive nature stories during the pandemic was perhaps distracting from serious environmental issues, Robinson gives good reason to think otherwise.   

“If anything, it might help people find groups of people who regularly engage with birds and learn something about the [environmental] issues from them. My sense is that it might actually build connectivity and help people find information on environmental issues.”  

As an example, Robinson explains how recently a federal judge struck down the Trump administration’s attempt to weaken the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, in order to loosen restrictions for industrial activities such as oil, gas, and mining. The MBTA was enacted in 1918—coincidentally the same year of the last pandemic—in order to build relationships amongst North American and other neighboring countries that provide habitat to migratory birds between their breeding and overwintering cycles.   

“Was there an extra rally of support for that when word got out that they were trying to undermine the Act because there were more birders?” Robinson muses, “I wouldn’t be surprised. More people aware usually means you get more feedback about these things in general.”  

Growing Accessibility   

Moving birding online via a platform like eBird is perhaps one of several steps increasing accessibility to an activity that, like many sciences and outdoor hobbies, unfortunately sometimes slips into the realm of behaving like a boy’s club.   

Robinson admits lightly, “I’m one of those Caucasian boys who somehow found birds when I was 10.”  

This is not unusual amongst ornithologists—most in this country have similar personal backgrounds, being white, and middle to upper class when they first find birds. Additionally, for Robinson, his entry into birding may not have been such a strong chord if it weren’t for the support he found for the activity amongst his peers and adult figures in his life early on.   

With his best childhood friend’s father employed at the local university as a zoologist, “I learned early on that you could actually get a job and make a living studying birds,” Robinson reflects. “I think a lot of young kids who run across birds and think that it’s pretty cool, sometimes they get bad advice from their families that say ‘you can’t make a living doing anything with birds so go do this in school and get a job’ and that’s just not right.”  

Today, having eBird so readily available online may help new birders find space for themselves to fit in the field virtually, with some extent of the mentorship that was so valuable for Robinson. More so, Robinson sees a need to inform high schoolers interested in studying birds in college that there are more affordable ways to do so than they might imagine – many are right here in Corvallis.   

“Other than Cornell, we have more PhD level ornithologists than any university in the country,” Robinson says of OSU’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We offer more bird classes than any campus—including Cornell—and we also, not coincidentally I don’t think because we are not Ivy League,” he laughs, “have lower tuition and easier admission standards. It’s a great place to go.”   

Birds to Look Forward to   

In addition to having the benefit of a strong ornithology program at OSU, the Willamette Valley is a great place to take up birding due to its’ climate and the kinds of habitats the area contains. The upcoming fall and winter seasons may already be dreaded by many for their cloud cover, and are now feared for the uncertainty of when it will be safe to resume more indoor social activities. Fortunately, birding presents the potential to continue enjoying and learning about nature amidst whatever else is to come.    

“Fall and winter is some of the best birding we have around here,” Robinson says enthusiastically. “Winter is spectacular in the Willamette Valley because we normally don’t freeze so the birds are very common—any birds that don’t breed here [in the summer] come to the Willamette Valley to overwinter. We have an enormous number of waterfowl if we have a normal, wet fall and winter, particularly from October through November we can have literally hundreds of thousands of different kinds of waterfowl, and lots of songbirds come here in the winter—it’s just a wonderful place for birding. Hopefully people can still get out a little bit and see some of that.”  

The moral of the story? Even in a pandemic, your world might just be improved if you choose to put a bird in it.   

New to birding? Check out these resources suggested by Robinson to get you going: 

By Ari Blatt