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:
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.
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.
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.
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!