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eBird and Macaulay Library: next generation tools for rich media

Adult male Northern Harrier, Moss Landing, CA, October. Photo by Brian L. Sullivan.
Adult male Northern Harrier, Moss Landing, CA, October. Photo by Brian L. Sullivan.

It’s no surprise that birders are a visual and aural community—after all, we spend most of our time searching for birds by sight and sound. Millions of birders around the world now carry cameras into the field, and many people also record bird sounds using smartphones. Until now, this rich resource of bird photos and sounds has been scattered across disparate resources, or in the worst cases has not been captured at all. Using the data collection power of eBird, and the long-term curation and archival capabilities of the Macaulay Library, we’ve created a home at the Cornell Lab for this next generation of bird information. Leveraging the strengths of both projects, we’ve developed a scientific foundation and a streamlined process for collecting rich media that provides a long-term, open data resource searchable by birders and scientists alike—a real-time, digital natural history collection. And did we forget to mention, it’s incredibly fun? Through a simple drag-and-drop process, it is now easy to illustrate your eBird checklists with photos and audio files, not only providing documentation for your bird records, but also creating a visual and audio tapestry of what you’re encountering in the field, and easily share it with others.

The Big Picture
While the ability to drag and drop rich media into your eBird checklists is fun, this process is highly significant for eBird and the Macaulay Library in several ways:

  1. It creates a permanent home for documentation associated with eBird records at the Macaulay Library. Photos, audio recordings, and video are an integral part of eBird’s data quality process, streamlining review by allowing for quicker validation of records. However, this process works only if the media are safely and securely linked to a checklist. eBird has historically relied upon external sites that allowed users to “embed” images in eBird checklists. While these other sites provide great services, their goals differ from those of a permanent archive. We’ve all been there: you go to a checklist to view a great photo, and all you get is a “link not found” message. Our aim is to ensure the services we provide are long-term, reliable resources for documenting avian diversity, focused on the needs of the birding, research, and conservation communities. Learn more about how to document your rare birds.
  2. It allows eBird, the Cornell Lab, and its global partners to engage emerging communities of nature enthusiasts. Today many people are connecting with birds for the first time through the camera lens, rather than through binoculars. In many places around the world, vibrant communities are springing up around bird photography. While taking photos of birds is fun, and sharing them with others is rewarding, our challenge is to capture this information in a way that is most useful for science and conservation. To accomplish this, we need to build tools that engage these new communities and help them to enjoy what they love to do (share bird photos), while at the same time help steer them toward collecting complete eBird checklists with effort, which are the heart and soul of eBird and its scientific value. Through the tools we’re developing, we hope to provide an exciting atmosphere for people to share and learn, while also emphasizing how to make your contributions most valuable for science. This next generation of naturalists can engage with the fun side of eBird, while contributing their rich media to a rapidly growing digital natural history collection.
  3. It enables eBirders to become a richer source of real-time information and knowledge about birds in our world. Beyond the distribution and abundance information that eBird already provides, this global, digital natural history collection will provide a resource that can be used to address current challenges in natural history research and science. Built with an eye toward the future, we hope to answer questions and address research challenges that lie just beyond the horizon.

A new vision for Macaulay Library
Documenting bird behavior through sounds and videos has been always been a central goal of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. For the last 100 years the Cornell Lab has been gathering, preserving, and disseminating media: from the first birds ever recorded (on 35mm film tape) in 1929, to the first behavioral study using film and sound in 1932, to the pioneering Neotropical collections of Ted Parker, Paul Schwartz, and L. Irby Davis.

From 35mm tape to the present. Audio files uploaded with this new tool scroll as you play, take a look here.

From 35mm film tape to the present. Audio files uploaded with this new tool scroll as you play, take a look here.

We can think of no better time than the 100-year anniversary of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, to expand the definition of collection and archival of bird specimens. In most contexts, “collecting” and “specimen” call to mind physical specimens, which do play a critical role in modern research. As new technologies and insights have made physical specimens more useful than ever, we anticipate similar discoveries with digital specimens using techniques that have not yet been developed. With this new tool, anyone in the world will be able to go out with a camera, microphone, or even just your mobile phone, and contribute to our global knowledge of birds in a way never before possible.

Exciting tools for eBirders
This influx of thousands of new images each day provides us the opportunity to develop some great new media tools for eBirders. The first of these is a “Rarity Feed” to replace the Flickr Rarities pool on the homepage—this new feed provides an automatically updated string of worldwide rare bird images. Warning: it can be addictive. Check out the latest images on the right side of the eBird homepage.

This rarity feed is the first in a long series of tools to explore media across eBird in fun and engaging ways. To make sure that all of these tools work as well as they can, it is important to understand what we’re looking for when choosing which photos and sounds to upload to eBird and the Macaulay Library. Please visit these pages for our best practices and guidelines for uploading photos and sounds.

What’s Next?
Innovation. Having access to millions of geo-referenced, science-based, bird images offers limitless capabilities for future tools and research. On the tools side of things, we’ll be focused on two features for the near future: building a comprehensive “Search” tool that allows you to quickly find the kinds of photos and sounds you’re interested in; and developing eBird/Macaulay profile pages, which will allow you to control the way you are represented in the community, and provide a platform to more easily share your bird observations, photos, and sounds with others.

On the near horizon for research there is an exciting collaboration developing in computer vision. Soon you’ll be able to annotate your images for inclusion in Merlin—an incredibly popular mobile app aimed at teaching birdwatchers how to identify birds. The vision for Merlin is to expand it globally, putting access to bird identification information into the hands of anyone with a mobile device—creating new connections between communities and nature. Over time, these same computer vision modeling techniques that drive Merlin will also aid in automatically detecting incorrectly identified images during upload, and provide instructional feedback to eBirders, thereby improving eBird data quality, and building general knowledge.

Millions of photos and constantly improving technology combine to create an exciting future for any image you add to the eBird-Macaulay Library archive.

Get out there and have fun!
By using eBird, you’ve shown the world what is possible when we come together around our common interest in birds. Your data have helped prioritize land acquisitions for conservation, served as the backbone for more than 100 peer-reviewed publications, and redefined birding in the 21st century. We’re excited to take this next step together: eBird, Macaulay, and the Lab’s network of global partners, working to redefine the processes of data collection, archiving, and access in a natural history collection. The future is in your hands, and your camera!