A decade of crowdsourcing in bird world

For ages, scientists have depended on records provided by amateur bird watchers across the world in the study of the avian world


Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

It’s been a decade since the term crowdsourcing entered business parlance. It is a buzzword for outreach, to outsource work or for fund raising on the Internet by businesses, charity and non-profit organizations.

But the basic philosophy behind crowdsourcing has been omnipresent in ornithology, between the scientific study of birds and the hobby of bird watching. For ages, scientists have depended on records provided by amateur bird watchers across the world in the study of the avian world. The Internet has only made the interaction easier.

In 2005, Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson, then editors at Wired magazine, coined the term crowdsourcing after seeing how the Internet is used as a tool to outsource work. A year later, Howe wrote an article in Wired titled The Rise of Crowdsourcing.

It’s a curious coincidence that in the same year that Howe and Robinson introduced the term, the website Xeno-canto whose name means strange sounds, was launched by scientists Bob Planqué and Willem-Pier Vellinga to record calls of South American birds.

It went online with this message, “We have set up a new website for the identification of bird songs from tropical America: Its main aim is to collect recordings from Central and South America, such that they can be used to help identification of recordings you may have at home.”

Over the years, xeno-canto expanded across the world. A post on the website reads: “In 2013, recordings were being added at a phenomenal rate. Over 40,000 new recordings were added, representing more than 50 percent of all bird species. The number of new contributors is also growing faster than ever: almost every day now a new recordist joins our ranks, and the total number is now above 1,900.”

In May, Xeno-canto celebrated a decade of existence. It aims to popularize bird sound recordings worldwide and hosts the largest collection of crowdsourced bird call recordings in the world, available free to all. So far it has a database of 2,499 recordists, 240,000 recordings of 9,332 species on the forum.

From India it has birdcall records from 843 species of the 1,300 found in the subcontinent.

Xeno-canto is run by the Stichting Xeno-canto voor natuurgeluiden from the Netherlands.

Earlier this year, another popular website devoted to ornithology and bird watching, OBI, the online photographic image resource library of the Oriental Bird Club (OBC), celebrated its 100,000th image upload.

The milestone image is a portrait of a Bar-headed Goose taken by Sunil Singhal at the Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary, Dholpur, Rajasthan, on 16 March.

“The uploading of the 100,000th image is testament to the years of dedicated hard work put in by a multitude of unpaid volunteers over the past 13 years since OBI was launched. The library speaks volumes for the sheer dedication of more than 1,500 amateur and professional bird photographers who have freely contributed their stunning images to this resource for bird researchers worldwide,” said Krys Kazmierczak, founder of OBC and OBI, in a statement.

The portal has photographic records of 2,876 Asian bird species. There are 29 species yet to be photographed in the wild from the 2,905 species recognized by OBI in the region.

“OBI goes way beyond just an image gallery for bird photographers to post their images. It is a vital academic resource for anyone with an interest in the birds of the Oriental region,” said Richard Grimmett, co-author of Birds of the Indian Subcontinent and director of conservation at BirdLife International.

The portal is among the most visited bird image libraries on the Internet and of immense value to the scientific community, ornithologists, conservationists and anyone with an interest in birds in the oriental region.

Another website which gained popularity by crowdsourcing is eBird, an Internet-based platform that gathers observations of birds, and helps birders maintain records of their sightings. Launched in 2002, it is housed in Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology. It has a repository of 200 million bird records, with more than 600,000 from India.

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