Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Birds at Large VII: Xmas Birdfeeder

My dad gave me a hanging birdfeeder for Christmas.  Great gift, right?

No.  The greatest.  

I haven't hung the thing up yet, but if the tag is any indication, this is the best birdfeeder ever made.  Take a close look at the picture below.  Not only will this feeder attract birds that are unknown to science, but it will bring them in WITHOUT EVEN NEEDING TO FILL IT WITH BIRDSEED.  

Thanks, Dad.  You're the best.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Interview with Brian Sullivan of eBird

I'm ashamed of the pun, but eBird kills two birds with one stone.  On the one hand are birders who are tired of keeping complicated lists of their sightings, and are looking to simplify.  On the other hand are scientists that are frustrated with extrapolating bird population data from banding stations and estimations and are looking for more complete data. 

This is where eBird comes in.  In addition to providing birders with a format to track and manage their lists and observations, it also allows scientists access to vast amounts of continent-wide data on bird populations.  After starting slowly, eBird now records millions of individual sightings each year.  In addition to being a great success story in the citizen science movement, eBird has become an indispensable tool for many birders, including myself.  

And guess what: there's a new version in the works.  I recently talked with Brian Sullivan, one of the three guys in charge of eBird, about the site's past, present and future.

Birdist: Let's start out by talking a little bit about your role, and the history of eBird.

Brian Sullivan: Well, eBird was launched in 2002 by the Lab and Audubon as a joint project, and the goal was generally to harness the power of the observations of birders, and put them into an archive where they could be used and accessed by scientists and conservationists.  So, that was sort of the overarching goal.  Internally, our big hypothesis was that observations made by birders could be used by scientists for scientific purposes, and we're still in the process of proving that, because eBird is relatively young.  You know, birders have collected data and made huge contributions to our knowledge of ornithology from the start, and this was sort of a no-brainer idea in terms of pulling all that data together into one useful format.

And so on your end, on the science end, it's very useful in terms of gathering data and those things.  On my end, as a casual birder, it's very useful as a way to keep track of what I'm doing and what I'm seeing.  So, when you guys started it up, did you really start from the scientific end of things or did you also think that this would be something that casual birders are going to need to keep track of their sightings?

Well, when eBird was first launched, it was built by scientists, for scientists.  It was less birder-friendly than it is now.  And that was fine, and a certain number of people will participate when they just want to contribute their data for the good of science and conservation and things like that.  The flaw was that there was no reward to the user back at the beginning.  So, basically you submitted your data into the vacuum and it was sucked in and put together with everyone elses, but you didn't get any reward back, even simple things like keeping a life-list, and things like that.  

So we saw a decent amount of participation in the beginning, but then it plateaued.   In 2005, they brought in Steve Kelling, who is the Director of Information Science at the Lab, and John Fitzpatrick, the Lab Director, decided to come at it from a different perspective and try to hire some people who would turn eBird on its head, essentially, and develop it from a birding perspective.  So, late 2004, early 2005 they brought me and Chris Wood on to basically try to increase participation and redevelop eBird in a way that would be more widely used in the birding community.  Chris and I basically vied for the same job, and then they decided to hire both of us because our ideas were so similar about how to get eBird to get to the next level. 

The big piece that we brought in were some simple user rewards, like various lists that birders keep.  So, when you input data, it automatically updates your lists based on the location where you submitted your data, things like that.  Simple stuff.

Simple, but necessary.  For someone like me, who didn't have a long history of keeping records on paper, and had grown up being very comfortable with computers, eBird was a no-brainer.  I think the very first day I discovered eBird, which was the middle or end of 2005, I signed up and started inputting.  And so, if it was your intention to get people like me into eBird, it certainly worked.  

Yeah, our goal at that point was to make eBird a tool for birders that they would want to use and not feel like they had to use.  That was you begin create participation but also sustain participation because the people who use it, like it, and continue to use it.  And so that was the major change in 2005 that took us from, you know, three to five thousand checklists a month up into the thirty and forty thousand checklist a month range.  And its grown steadily since.  We've had some months with over one-hundred thousand checklists, which is over one million observations.  

So we're happy with that.  This nice thing about the growth is that it allows us to leverage more development, funding and personnel, to build Version Three.  Version Three is essentially going to continue with the same line of thinking that we had before, but we'll sort of beef it up a little bit so that birders have more control over how they want to keep their lists in eBird.  One of the big aspects that we're developing is the ability to build a community around birds, and open things up in a way so that it's less anonymous.  Birders love to be congratulated when they find a great bird, they love the reward they get for their hard work.  We're trying to figure out how to built mechanisms so that other users can give each other a pat on the back, and can also communicate with them when something is wrong.  

So are you looking toward social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace in terms of figuring out how these types of online communities operate or look?

Yeah, absolutely.  Facebook's a great model for how that would work.  At this point we're trying to figure out how to tie in to some of those community sites by, basically, bringing pieces of eBird out so they can be embedded into your Facebook page or things like that.  So, if you wanted to display your Maine list on your Facebook page you could put a little gadget into your page so people could see it.

Which is like the gadget I know of now, which is the pull-down menu by state, where you can see notable sightings broken down by state, correct?

Exactly.  We're trying to, with 3.0, built a very sophisticated home listing base, where you can enter data, manage your data, and manage your lists like you were never really able to before.  But also we're really interested in pushing eBird out to some of these other websites.  You know, when you're a birder you want people to see what you've reported, and you want to know what other people have seen.  So, we're trying to figure out ways to make that happen.  Say, like on Twitter, where you're following what a friend is doing, well maybe on your Facebook page you could set up a feed when you could follow some of your local Maine birding friends and see what they're reporting immediately, either on Facebook or Twitter or your cell-phone.  We're trying to make a more open atmosphere to eBird and also a more immediate atmosphere to it.  Now it takes a long time to get information back...birders want to know about a rare bird yesterday, not a couple of days from now.

If I was going to offer a suggestion for something I'd like to see in a new version, it would be better searching features.  One thing I sometimes do is sit around in Maine and plan trips for myself, or think about what birds I could see if I were somewhere else.  That involves looking at eBird and figuring out, you know, what birds I could see in Oregon in December.  Or April.  And that has been something that's been a little bit difficult to do on eBird.  Are you working on anything for Version Three in terms of searching?

Yeah, absolutely.  In the next few weeks, actually, we're going to put out a Google-map, where you will be able to search for a species and it will give you a Google-map of, say, California with all the reported sightings of a certain species.  Then you can click on those points and get data for each sighting.  That'll be a big step in the right direction in terms of data-out.

One of the other things we've talked about, that we'd really like to develop for Version Three, is, you know when you go the data entry and you get a Google-map and it's got all the hotspots on it?  Well we're thinking about turning that around and making it and input, so that you could go to a map of Oregon, click on a hotspot and then get all the barcharts with everybody's data together.  So if you clicked on a species there you might get the most recent sightings of that species at that hotspot.  That's what we're looking at in terms of hotspot output.

Those hotspots are recommended by users, right?  Then you guys go in and approve the ones that you agree are actually hotspots?  Because one of the other problems with searching is that people label different sites with different names.  So, when someone has seen a certain bird at, say, Bridge 4, it could be hard for me to tell what that location is if it's not a commonly-known hotspot.  Is that someone you guys could address?

Well, hotspots have always been sort of a thorn in our side.  The hotspot concept was essentially a "wiki" concept before "wikis" were even developed.  This was back in 2002, and the idea was that we would let the community create and define hotspots.  So we have this system in place where people can suggest hotspots, but we still have to manually approve them.  And that is a bit clunky.  One thing we have on the table, and I'm not sure it's going to happen in 3.0, is moving the entire hotspots process over into a wiki framework, where the users can provide information about hotspots and manage them.  All of the things we do now we would add to that mapping output.  

That would be helpful because hotspots are really something that is done on a local level.  If five or six people in Maine visit the same site, but call it something different, then the data doesn't back to you and doesn't get back to us as well as it could.  

Right, yeah, and we're painfully aware of issues with hotspots.  What we struggle with all the time is that we have a certain amount of time and resources we can put towards development and we have to prioritize what we think will give us the biggest bang for the buck.  Hotspots is definitely on the list, and it has been for some time, we just have to figure out how to tackle it the right way, and that is probably to put most of the work in the hands of the birders.  You know, birders are fanatical about their birding locations, and it would be an amazing resource to click on, you know, Higbee Beach in Cape May and figure out exactly where to go to find a certain species from the locals who bird there every day.  

Plus, it's really the only way you could do it.  You guys are good birders, but you can't be in every single spot.  If you want to make a comprehensive site, you have to leave it with locals, the people who know places the best.  Are there any other Version Three tricks up your sleeves?

Well we're planning on launching eBird worldwide for Version 3.0.  It'll be great because you could enter data from anywhere.  We get asked for that alot.  We're spending a lot of time and energy now to develop the network we'll need to launch worldwide.  It's going to be hard in some places.  The first step is just allowing people to enter data.  Then it's going to know, the nice thing about eBird is that you can always re-run the data through finer filters.  So, the data in Bangladesh may not be squeaky-clean right off the bat, but when we have better filters we'll be able to reprocess that data through those filters to make sure they're good.  But the first step is to allow people to enter data so they have it on their lists.  

It takes awhile for any community to give polished data.  I remember when I started using eBird, I was putting all kinds of "Xs" and "sp." in, and I wasn't reporting all the birds...I think after awhile you learn the sort of etiquette of eBird, or simply which inputs produce the most useful results.  

That's interesting that you'd say that, that's something we're very interested in at eBird is knowing how eBird has changed the way people go birding.  We've always designed and developed eBird with that goal in mind.  We don't just want people to use it without learning anything.  We want them to know why it's important to report all birds, or to provide some effort information with your records.  It's great to hear that you learned those things without much prompting, really with just interaction with the program.

This goes to the question of, you know, eBird was started with scientific interests in mind, what have you learned in the five or six years that eBird has been around?

The amount of data we're collecting at this point - you know, eBird is a young project - but the amount of data we're collecting really allows us for the first time to look at the distribution and abundance and, sort of overall patterns and dynamics of bird populations at the continental scale.  We can start to look at the movements of Nashville Warblers all the way from their breeding grounds all the way down to their wintering grounds.  It's just amazing to look at an entire species' range as it shifts across the continent.  We're really excited about that.

Right now we have a group of scientists that the Cornell Computers Science Department that are using eBird data in a number of ways to try to model bird abundance at the daily level, on a continent scale.  It's pretty amazing.  They've actually succeeded in doing that for species like Tree Swallow and Eastern Pheobe, species where we have a lot of data.  The scientists are taking that data and tuning it up so we can start to look at some of the stuff for rarer species, obviously the goal being things like: what do these species need, where do they migrate, what is the connectivity look like between breeding grounds and wintering grounds in terms of habitat available, how do you prioritize conservation of those habitats?  Basically making models that help identify species-habitat relationships and fill gaps where there are huge bits of information that are lacking.  Like, where are LeConte's Sparrows during migration?  Where are they between Michigan and Mississippi?

I think that as we continue to collect data, and as birders continue to learn that providing effort-based information and giving checklists with complete species helps us in terms of analysis, we'll be able to learn even more.  Beyond eBirds organizational use as a database, which is great also for sort of the day-to-day record keeping on a regional scale, it's a great tool for organizing information for local journals, state journals and even national journals.  All of those things are being tied in now.  From an analysis standpoint, we're just at the tip of the iceburg with what we can do with the information.

On the same end, you've learned a lot about birds, have you learned anything about birders that you didn't expect? 

Well, Chris Wood and Marshall Iliff and I are what they call the "three-headed monster" that runs eBird now, and all three of us have been birding for a good portion of our lives.  We're pretty dialed in about what birders want.  I think some of the scientists at Cornell have learned a lot about birders by seeing the results we've got with eBird by making some simple tweaks that appeal to birders.  It's been a great learning process for citizen-science in general to learn that when you build a project you need to consider the needs of your audience instead of the needs of the scientists.  Or, I should say, as well as the needs of the scientists.   You need to not only develop a project that will gather useful data but it needs to be a project will result in some sort of useful reward for the user.  That's been the biggest thing that's been learned from this entire process, and I think a lot of citizen-science projects in the future will be based on that model.  ø

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Interview with Sharon Gray of Ridge Bird Feeders

Ridge Bird Feeders doesn't just produce excellent-quality birdfeeders, they produce GIGANTIC, excellent-quality birdfeeders.  In fact, as certified by the Guinness Book of World Records, Ridge Bird Feeders has built the largest birdfeeder in the world.  The thing is 8 feet tall!  It holds 135 pounds of seed!  It's in the great state of Maine!

I don't usually "pimp" products here, but this holiday season I encourage you to buy Maine, buy birdy, and buy Ridge.  Plus, you can say your feeder is the cousin of the largest in the world.  

I talked with Sharon Gray of Ridge Bird Feeders about the world record feeder.

Birdist: When did the idea first come about to attempt to make the world's largest birdfeeder?

Sharon Gray: Well it all started when I asked Bill [Cote] to make me a large bird feeder.  All and all, I did not need it that large because all the feeders that we sell are large and beautiful. After it was laid out we talked about the possibility of using it for advertising and then on to Guinness.

How was the feeder constructed? Was the process different for your normal-sized feeders?

SG: It was constructed as a duplicate of our feeder design, just larger, white cedar, longer stainless screws, etc.  The process was the same with the only difference being Plexiglass braces on the inside of the hopper to keep it wrapped.  Of course it is varnished also!

How much seed did it take to fill the feeder up? How were you even able to fill it?

SG: The feeder takes 136 lbs of black oil sun flower seed to fill.  If we feed with a smaller seed it might hold more weight.  We use a tall ladder and five gallon pails to fill it.  We normally only put 50 to 60 lbs at a time in it.  Bill just muscles it up.

How did you hang it up and how long did you leave it?

SG: It appears to be hanging but is on a perch.  Once it is up it stays up and only comes down to be repaired from the damage done by red squirrels.

Oh so the feeder has been in operation since it was built? How much seed would you guess you've gone through?

SG: The feeder has been feeding for a while, I think it was built in 2006.  Seed, that is a good question.  We do not go through as much as some people but maybe 800 lbs of black oil sun flower a year.

Do a lot of birds come to the feeder? What species have you seen?

SG: We get quite a few depending on the time of year.  We get cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, finches, grosbeaks, pine siskins, blue jays, doves, woodpeckers and all the ground feeders that go along to name a few.

Can you tell me a little bit about the Guinness process? Did someone have to come out and verify what you made?

SG: The Guinness process is pretty cut a dried. You register with them and tell them what record you want to go for and wait for their reply. Once you have it then they send you all the info and all you have to do is follow them to the letter.  It took us a year but this was due to the firm that set up our web site and let the ball fall with Guinness.  Bill had to pick up the pieces and start all over again...

When we were ready to go for the record we had a reporter from a TV station, WABI TV Bangor, and two people from a community radio station out of Blue Hill, Me., WERU.  We had to take the feeder down, measure it, weigh the seed, fill the feeder.  We had to take the statements and send a video from the TV broadcast to Guinness.  I think we waited 8 weeks and they sent us the paper work that we had the world record.

If you want somebody to come over the pond from Guinness it is extremely expensive and is not required, but the process could have taken only a couple of weeks.

Do you have any plans to build and even BIGGER feeder? Is anyone challenging your record?

SG: Bigger feeder I do not know.  Same answer for someone challenging the record.  We have not heard. ø

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Few Gull Notes

First, big news.  I got a message today from local Audubon naturalist Eric Hynes.  He was looking at an unusual gull off Back Cove in Portland, possibly a California Gull.  By the time I was able to get back to Eric, the bird had been flushed by a dog-walker (curses!) and could not be relocated.  I checked a couple spots around the Cove to no avail.

Too bad, too, because after inspecting the photos Eric determined that it was not a California Gull but Maine's first recorded Mew Gull.  Check out some lovely pictures right here.  Congratulations, Eric.

Second, I've noticed a whole bunch of Thayer's Gulls being reported across the East Coast.  I've been looking at Thayer's Gulls, and, man, are they hard to tell from Herrings.  For some help, here is a real helpful webpage showing the differences between the two species.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Birds and Sports Logos

 [This post was originally run as a guest post on 10,000 Birds]

Hello 10k Birds readers! Thanks, Mike, for the invite, this is one heck of a site you guys got yourselves.

OK, so, on my own site I sometimes like to explore the ways birds and birders are misunderstood by the media and the general public.  It may be nitpicky, and the people may mean well, but I've spent a lot of time honing my power of bird-observation, and I'm not going to turn it off just because I'm at home on the couch.  Plus, if you're producing a big-budget American TV commercial, how hard is it really to make sure that the bird you're using isn't restricted to, say, the South American rainforest?  Isn't that your job?  I mean, there's a reason he's named Smoky the Bear and not Smoky the Wallaby, right?

Regardless of whether some hotshot commercial producer cares, I care.  You know what else I care about?  Sports.  And, as it just so happens, sports teams represent (and misrepresent) birds all the time in their team logos.  So today I'm going to do a breakdown, Uni-Watch style, of the best, okay-ist, and worst bird-themed sports logos in sports.  Grades will be given out based on ornithological accuracy and whatever other criteria I see fit.  [Note: I'll be sticking primarily to professional American sports: MLB, NBA, NFL and, I guess, the NHL.  For a list of bird-themed college teams with some snarky commentary, look here.]  Let's do it.

Major League Baseball

Baltimore Orioles.  Although they are a perennially crummy baseball team, the Baltimore Orioles represent the pinnacle of bird-sports achievement.  First, they are the only team that I know of which includes the team's geographic location as part of a species name: the bird is named the Baltimore Oriole, and the team is the Baltimore Orioles.  Genius.  I really wish more teams would do this, and someday bird-nerds around the country could celebrate when the California Condors play the Nashville Warblers in the World Series.  

Second, the Orioles logo is, ornithologically, spectacular.  Although the logo hasn't always been so accurate, the current version, at least compared to some of the logos we'll see later on, looks to be right out of a field guide.   Closer inspection reveals some discrepancies, however.  Unlike the bird in the logo, actual male Baltimore Orioles have gray/blue bills and no cream eye-ring. Real birds also show a good deal more white in the coverts and secondaries than the logo bird.  I'll let those details slide as artistic license, though, and at least the team isn't making a mockery of the bird.  Oh, wait...let's move on.    Grade = A

Toronto Blue Jays.  Another mediocre, American League East baseball team which has chosen a smallish, not-particularly-intimidating bird as its mascot.  I love the logo, though.  At least, I love the one the one they used to wear, before they started to make a mess of things.

Like the Orioles, the Blue Jays logo isn't ornithologically perfect. The biggest difference is, of course, that real blue jays have black bills and collars, not dark blue.  It's a pretty logo, though, and it's not a bird that traditionally gets the sports-team treatment, so it's OK in my book.  These guys, however, must be destroyed.  Grade = A-

St. Louis Cardinals.  As far as I can tell, the Cardinals are the oldest bird-named team in the country since changing over from the weirdly-named Brown Stockings in 1900 (and that would be this kind, not this kind).  And it's a good thing, too, because their logo is classic.  It's not perfect, though.  The beak and legs are bright yellow, while on a real male Northern Cardinal they are red/orange and dark pink, respectively.  The eye of the logo is also not the black it would be in real life, but, as with the Orioles, I'll let that slide as artistic license.  Note that the logo used by the Cardinals from 1967-1997 get the beak and legs colors a bit more realistic, and adds a funky little hat. Good work, St. Louis.  Grade = A

Boston Red Sox.  What do the Red Sox have to do with birds?  Am I just putting them on this list because they are my favorite sports team?  Well, yes and no.  Check out the Red Sox "B" emblem.  Got it?  Okay, now turn the B ninety degrees clockwise.  What do you see?  Yes, it's an owl.  Isn't that cool?  Somewhere along the line I thought that it was used as a logo for some college (Rice Owls?  Temple Owls?) but I haven't been able to confirm that.  Grade = A for coolness

The National Football League

Atlanta Falcons.  Alright, here is the time for some real tough, badass birds!  None of these wimpy orioles and jays, we want some tough birds to represent some tough guys!  And what could be tougher than a falcon?  The fastest birds in the sky!  Lightning-quick raptors that swoop from the sky!  Surely the Atlanta Falcons would honor this noble family through a cool logo! 

Excuse me. Excuse me. What the hell is that? Is THAT your falcons logo?  That looks awful!  That's nothing like what falcons look like!  OK, maybe it's just a "hip, new" thing, and your older logo was better. No! Awful!

Ugh.  Where to begin?  First, falcons have very distinct, angular wings, a feature completely botched in the logo (the logo bird's wings look more like, what, passerines?).  Second, although there is such a thing as a Black Falcon, it lives in Australia, not Atlanta.  And what's with the leg sticking out?  Is he injured?  Sigh.  So much wasted potential.  Grade = D-

Philadelphia Eagles.  I mean, it's OK. It gets points for being intense, it loses a bunch of points for being green and silver. I'm not gonna hate on it, but eagles are done much better in other places. Grade = C

Arizona Cardinals.  Unlike the baseball team, these Cardinals just went with the head.  Like the baseball team, though, the Arizona Cardinals have miscolored the bird's break and eyes.  I'm generally in favor if this logo, but it's nothing to write home about.  Grade = B-

Seattle Seahawks.  As been covered on this website before, a Seahawk is another name for an Osprey. Although this logo isn't exactly realistic, it's done in the local Native American style, so I'm not going to dock much points. Seattle sports are miserable enough right now without me piling it on. Grade = C  

Baltimore Ravens.  Look, I really want to like this logo.  I think Ravens are a great mascot, and an underappreciated bird.  I like the Baltimore - Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" connection.'s purple.  It's unoriginal.  It's ugly.  Grade = C-

The National Basketball Association

Atlanta Hawks.  The NBA is the league with the least number of bird-related teams, with only the Hawks representing.  Annnnd it's a pretty crummy logo, at least from an ornithological perspective.  I researched as best I could (great website there, by the way), and I don't think there are any red hawks like the one in the picture, and certainly not in Atlanta.  It's not so bad, though.  It's a pretty good hawk, for a generic one.  Plus, the Hawks get a few bonus points for making one my my favorite logos ever.  Grade = B

The National Hockey League

Before we get into the real teams, there are a couple quasi-birdy NHL teams we need to get out of the way.  First, the Chicago Blackhawks are named after Chief Black Hawk, not a bird.  Second, while the logos for the Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers and St. Louis Blues use wing imagery, they are not countable here.  Moving on.

Pittsburgh Penguins.  The Penguins have a couple of logos, and they are both awesome.  For the skating penguin, regardless of whether or not it's a real bird, how could you not love that?  Adorable.  For the older penguin head logo, it appears to be modeled on the Emperor, and it looks pretty good to me.  I also give the team a lot of respect for picking such an untraditionally friendly bird for a mascot (it's a winter thing, I think). Great job, Penguins. Grade = A

Atlanta Thrashers.  Oh, Atlanta, what are we going to do with you?  Three bird-related teams, and three crappy logos.  Atlanta's hockey team is named after Georgia's state bird, the Brown Thrasher, which is convenient because "thrashing" is also one of those macho sports words.  Too bad the logo looks like crap.  Ugh.  I'll grant that actual Brown Thrashers aren't visually distinctive, but that logo is embarrassing.  Atlanta, for shame.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Quick News and Notes

It's law school finals time, so I haven't been spending much time birding posting.  It sucks.  But I'm still working on some things for the near future, so don't give up!

First, from the world of Birds At Large:  Look, Gmail, if you're going to be reading my emails and subjecting me to targeted advertising, at least make sure the things are spelled correctly.  So, no, I am not looking for "Effective ways to keep Squirrels off Bird Feaders."

Second, I've got interviews in the works with the company that built the World Record bird feeder and Brian Sullivan from eBird, talking about potential changes in version 3.  Stay tuned for those.

Third, I'll be posting a guest post on 10,000 Birds in the next week or two about the bird-themed sports logos, a topic I'm way too interested in.  

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