28 Sep 2018

People power: citizen scientists fill the information gaps for African birds

Not all countries have the resources to conduct big scientific surveys. A pioneering new project across three African countries proves that local volunteers are an effective way to monitor the health of birds and the habitats they live in.

Participants in the bird monitoring scheme in Botswana in action. © Bathusi Letlhare
By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

Every day, thousands of people around the world head outdoors, binoculars slung around their neck, and walk through their neighbourhood or head out to local parks and reserves, spotting and enjoying birds. International events – like EuroBirdwatch (6-7 October 2018), Global Big Day (6 October 2018) and World Migratory Bird Day (13 October 2018) – capitalise on this interest by adding a competitive element and encouraging people to record as many birds as they can in a standardised way.

These organised events are just one part of efforts around the world to engage volunteers in citizen science, and more specifically in bird monitoring. The idea behind these projects is simple: the more we know about birds – where they are, how many there are, and what they are doing – the better we can protect them and their habitats. By their nature, many of the world’s best-known and most popular birds are common and widespread, occurring in habitats where people live, work and play, such as gardens, parks, farmland and woodland. This makes them ideal subjects for monitoring by citizen scientists.

“Getting enough people in a big enough area to walk a particular route and count the birds they see –  in the same way, at the same time of day, at the same time of a year – tells us a lot about how these species are doing,” says Ian Burfield, Global Science Coordinator at BirdLife International. “And the fact that birds are such good indicators of biodiversity in general means that the bird trends revealed by these volunteers can tell us a lot about the state of the wider environment”.

This information can be so reliable that bird population monitoring schemes are used to measure how well biodiversity targets and sustainable development goals are being met. In Europe, for example, the farmland bird index produced by the EBCC/BirdLife Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme (PECBMS) has been adopted by the EU and many countries as an official indicator of sustainable rural development, and is used to help inform agri-environment payments to farmers.

However, it is much easier to gather reliable citizen science data in some areas than others. While 28 European countries run national bird monitoring schemes contributing to the PECBMS, and more than 46 million Americans consider themselves birdwatchers, comparable data can be hard to find outside Europe and North America. This is largely due to a lack of resources for monitoring, and a general view that it is not possible to collect such data in tropical countries with no history of monitoring.

This perception is challenged by the results of a study published recently in the journal Oryx, showing that bird monitoring schemes using volunteers have been established successfully in Botswana, Kenya and Uganda through a project involving four BirdLife Partners (RSPB, BirdLife Botswana, Nature Kenya and Nature Uganda) and BirdLife International. Starting in 2009, each African Partner received technical support and modest funding to cover the salary of a national coordinator and the costs of some printed materials and training workshops to raise awareness and build capacity. Twice a year, in January/February and July/August, trained volunteers in each country set out to record as many birds as possible along a fixed 2-kilometre transect, reporting their data to the national Partner.

“The provisional results from the first five years of monitoring suggest an increase in bird populations in Botswana, but a decrease in Uganda,” says Kariuki Ndang’ang’a, Acting Head of Conservation Division for BirdLife Africa. “The project has been a vital proof of concept, demonstrating that it is possible to set up and run such schemes in Africa, and that they can deliver policy-relevant results.”

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The project has also succeeded on a more local scale, by helping to engender an interest in birds within communities.

“The programme has been instrumental in developing citizens’ interest in and knowledge of birds, especially among rural community groups,” says Keddy Moleofi, Bird Population Program Monitoring Officer at BirdLife Botswana. “Some even take the initiative of further increasing their bird knowledge – our office regularly receives calls from people enquiring about bird species they have seen.”

The challenge now is to ensure ongoing funding for these three schemes, and to secure resources to upscale the initiative by replicating it across Africa and beyond. Initial funding and technical support for the project were provided largely by the RSPB. While the success of the project shows that such monitoring schemes can be established and maintained for modest investment, this funding must come from other sources now – the onus being on national governments, who need such data to inform their national policy decisions, and to report on their efforts to meet international commitments to conserve biodiversity.

“It is encouraging that Botswana, Kenya and Uganda all now have structured bird monitoring programmes in place,” says Simon Wotton, Senior Conservation Scientist at RSPB and lead author of the paper. “We hope that this will encourage other countries to invest in well-designed, citizen science-based biodiversity monitoring for birds. The value of the information collected can only increase as more countries share common standards, knowledge and data outputs, as has occurred in Europe and North America, where cooperation has formed the basis for important research.”

If you would like to read more about this study, the paper Developing biodiversity indicators for African birds, is now freely available until 19 October 2018 in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.