Impacts of big birding events in tropical Asia – a case study from Kerala. Sreekumar, E.R., Syamili, M.S., Praveen. J.
 2024. IBIS. DOI: 10.1111/ibi.13321 VIEW

My journey into the world of birds didn’t start as a childhood fascination or an inherited passion. It was my professor Dr. Nameer P.O., who captivated some of us to birdwatching with his animated bird descriptions and thrilling field stories, resulting in a tight-knit group of birdwatching buddies. We started taking birdwatching more seriously, sneaking off to the university’s botanical garden whenever we had a free hour, with binoculars and field notes, no matter the time of day, eager to spot our lifers. Later with the advent of eBird (citizen science online enterprise of Cornell University) in Kerala state of India in 2014, this became even more exciting and a tad competitive, as we all aimed for higher species counts and more checklists. While we challenged ourselves to bird as much as possible for the first big birding event on our university campus as a vibrant group, we were birding separately during our vacation time for the second event. During the latter, I often encouraged my little sister to join me as I missed the company of my birdwatching buddies. It often turned into a family birding experience. Nonetheless, I remained competitive and wanted more checklists. Was it merely a competition for me, or did I make a significant contribution to science? This was an issue posed to all of us later on.

Are big birding events merely competitive?

Kerala had two big birding events hosted by eBird and Bird Count India: the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) and the Onam Bird Count (OBC). A four-day birdwatching event in February, the GBBC follows the straightforward “bird anywhere, everywhere” policy, which involves submitting a 15-minute checklist to eBird. Following a similar protocol, the OBC is India’s first festival-based birding event and takes place annually in August – September during the harvest season in Kerala state, known as “Onam.”

Figure 1. GBBC India 2024 poster. At a global level, India uploaded the second-highest number of checklists and Kerala recorded the greatest number of checklists from India (14,023).

Every year, during the annual Kerala Bird Monitoring meetings, my birdwatching companion and co-author of this article, Sreekumar, and I were assigned to present the results of these two big birding events. After consecutively presenting the results for the 8th year, our mentor and co-author, Praveen J, posed an intriguing question ‘whether these results hold any significance for bird monitoring in Kerala? Or is it merely a competition between birders? Our interest piqued. I agree that the advertisement of these events initially made it easier for people to use the eBird platform and capture their observations digitally. However, after nine years what is the significance of such events?

Figure 2. Top GBBC Kerala contributors Abhirami and Afthab enjoy birdwatching amidst the tranquil tea plantations of Munnar, Kerala © Syamili MS.

We decided to analyse the overall contribution of these two big birding events: the GBBC and the OBC, in Kerala by focusing on data contribution, species representation, spatial coverage and birder recruitment. By that time, Kerala already completed a systematically structured bird atlas. Hence, we downloaded the Kerala bird data since 2014 from the eBird platform and filtered the data into three categories – big birding events (GBBC & OBC data), Kerala bird atlas and general bird data (remaining Kerala data).

Big birding is comparable to Kerala’s general birdwatching data.

The number of checklists submitted to eBird is considered a measure of data contribution. During the big birding events, the weekly checklist rate was considerably higher (seven times) than in the remaining weeks.  We believe that the primary cause of the rise in checklist submissions is the competitive nature of the events. Even during the COVID years (2020 & 2021), Kerala birders continued to actively participate in these big birding activities. Though the pandemic limited the geographical coverage of birding, people continued to submit checklists proving the effectiveness of the motto “birding anywhere and everywhere.” We assume that Kerala birders have been excitedly noting the GBBC and OBC on their birding calendars since 2014.

Despite the availability of excellent technology such as eBird and Merlin for bird identification, beginners often struggle with bird identification, especially in bird-rich regions like Kerala. So, the next concern was the data quality of this large dataset. It was interesting to see that the data on common species from GBBC and OBC closely matched the general Kerala trend.  This could be because of the overall similarity of non-forested landscapes in Kerala.

Figure 3. Indian Pitta – Pitta brachyura © Praveen ES.

Kerala is one of the most intensely covered states in eBird, with a high checklist density. Remarkably, the eight-day birding activities managed to cover 80% of Kerala. Bravo to birdwatchers in Kerala! However, certain regions such as urban areas and residential areas showcased higher birding activity during these events. The reliance on the number of lists as a measure to compare the participation during these events may encourage birders to remain closer to their living spaces, aiming to increase their list contribution while saving time on travel to a prime birding location. Besides the considerable data contribution from these big birding events, they have consistently attracted a sizable number of birders to Kerala bird monitoring activities over the past 9 years. The GBBC and OBC periods together account for more than half of new bird watchers annually in Kerala.

Writing the article on big birding events was incredibly rewarding for me. Back in my student days, I was eager to participate in these events, and even during my teaching tenure, I found myself promoting them. The slogan, ‘birding anywhere and everywhere’ has proven incredibly successful, even in unprecedented scenarios like the pandemic. It’s not just about the hobby of birdwatching; these events are crucial for crowdsourcing vital bird data, thereby highlighting its potential as a strong citizen science effort.

Image credits

Top right: Great Hornbill (Great Pied Hornbill) – Buceros bicornis © Afthab Faisal Katatkath.

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