Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, June 24, 2021

New Technology for Citizen Scientists

Northern Flying Squirrel at my bird bath!

This week I talked about good and bad news about birds. There’s also a bit of current news about flying squirrels which I read about in an article by John Myers in the Duluth News-Tribune this week.   

A study out of Ontario is finding that northern flying squirrels are disappearing from the Northland thanks to climate change as warming trends lead to the loss of so many of our conifers. Southern flying squirrels, more associated with hardwoods, are advancing north and replacing the northern species at the astonishing rate of 12.5 miles per year. Rich Staffen, a biologist with the Wisconsin DNR, said southern flying squirrels have now reached Lake Superior, and that squirrel trapping programs in the past 5 years in the northern third of Wisconsin now are mostly catching southern flying squirrels and only rarely northerns. Both Wisconsin and Michigan are now listing the northern flying squirrel as a species of concern because of their rapidly shrinking range. Minnesota hadn’t been paying much attention until just recently. Now Michael Joyce, a wildlife ecologist at the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth, is leading a pilot program to capture ultrasonic voices of flying squirrels and to capture their images from trail cams. He’s also asking people up here to share our reports. (Michael Joyce's email,) My backyard trail cams caught pictures and videos of flying squirrels in a feeder and a birdbath last fall. They look to my inexperienced eyes like southern flying squirrels but I couldn’t be sure—taken at night, the photos are black-and-white and don’t show that much detail, but that’s for Michael Joyce to decide.   

Northern Flying Squirrel at my bird bath!

During the pandemic, more and more people have started paying attention to backyard wildlife, and as people grow increasingly aware of birds and other animals living among us, the natural impulse is to care more. That should vastly increase the data citizen science provides for projects like the flying squirrel study. 

The single easiest way anyone can provide valuable data is to submit their bird sightings to eBird—a wonderful, absolutely free, tool managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I have the eBird app on my iPhone. Say I’m about to take a walk along the Western Waterfront Trail. I start up the eBird app in the parking lot. It produces a checklist of the likely birds I’ll see there that day. I keep track of species and numbers as I walk, but don’t entered some birds until I get back to the parking lot when I’m done—the idea of eBird after all is to keep track of the birds we see, not keep our faces focused on an app. When I’m done, eBird shows a map of exactly where I’ve been at that time on that date, along with my checklist. The data generated is valuable for conservation scientists, and grows ever more valuable as the network of people submitting data grows. And eBird’s value isn’t limited to science. It also keeps track of our personal birding lists so if we keep it up to date, we can find out exactly how long our yard list is, how many birds we've seen in any given year, and how many birds we’ve seen in each location, county, state, and country we’ve birded in.  

But what if you can’t recognize a bird? The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has another app, Merlin, designed to help anyone, including absolute beginners, with identification. Merlin even identifies bird photos if we furnish the date and place to narrow down the possibilities. I’ve tested Merlin many times with my own photos of known birds, including some pretty marginal photos, and been very impressed with the app’s accuracy. And it can be used with eBird so the birds we identify can be seamlessly added to our checklist. Like eBird, Merlin is absolutely free.   

And this week, Cornell announced a huge improvement in this already superb app. Now Merlin can help us identify the bird sounds we hear! I haven’t tested it myself yet—I only heard about it yesterday—but it looks fantastic. And again, it’s absolutely free. You can learn about it at  

Since the pandemic began, I’ve been making lots of recordings of my backyard birds. Sometimes those recordings reveal the presence of birds I hadn’t noticed in person. Now a group of biologists and conservationists have developed an exciting device called Terra, which contains a set of microphones and a radio receiver for radio-tagged birds to be set up on people’s property. It will keep track of night sounds of migrating birds as well as day-flying birds, and will recognize the increasing number of birds wearing radio tags as they visit or fly over our yards. Terra’s scientific value will come from having an extensive network of them. The Terra team is launching this project via Kickstarter, setting a goal of $266,700 in pledges in the campaign, which ends of July 1. No money pledged will be charged unless they reach this goal; the device will be sent to everyone who pledges $165 or more. The link to the Terra information page is here.   

It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of so many urgent environmental problems. eBird, Merlin, and now Terra are wonderful tools to help us notice, recognize, and enjoy wildlife while making tangible contributions to their long term survival.