3 June 2010, by Tamera Jones
Natural history enthusiasts could help prevent the future extinction of many birds by reporting regular sightings of even the most common species, say scientists.
They explain that gathering data on birds that aren't currently at risk is just as important as collecting information on more charismatic or threatened species.
This is because scientists need to compare long-term records of all species to be able to build up a clear picture of how their numbers and distribution change over time.
The international team of researchers from Britain, Australia and China suggests that people could use the internet to report their sightings in a standardised way.
'The important thing is to put the information into a website in the most efficient way possible with coordinates and details about where you saw the species.'
Elizabeth Boakes, NERC Centre for Population Biology
'There's a wealth of bird-watching websites where people can report their sightings, so clearly there's a big appetite for this already,' says Dr Elizabeth Boakes from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Centre for Population Biology at Imperial College London, who led the research.
'The trouble is because there are so many websites, the data can easily get lost. It would be much more useful if the data that people recorded was standardised in a single website.'
'The important thing is to put the information into a website in the most efficient way possible with coordinates and details about where you saw the species,' adds Boakes.
International commitments like the Millennium Development Goals and the Convention on Biological Diversity call for a cut in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. But scientists need both historical data and information on the situation today to be able to measure these trends.
'In the future we just don't know which species might become threatened. We won't be able to look back if we don't have a baseline. Take the house sparrow for example: once extremely common, its numbers have nosedived in recent years,' says Boakes.
Boakes and her colleagues report in PLoS Biology how they collected a huge historical database of around 170,000 records of 127 species of birds like chickens, grouse, turkey and quail, which are all in a group called Galliformes.
'We chose this order of birds because they're popular with birdwatchers so are well documented, and there's a huge range of species,' says Boakes.
The records dated back over two centuries and came from museum collections, scientific literature, ringing records, ornithological atlases and website reports from citizen scientists in Europe and Asia.
Bias towards threatened species
Boakes and her colleagues found that data from the last 30 years or so has been heavily biased towards threatened species and protected areas – or regions with high biodiversity.
They found that museum data provided the most comprehensive historical coverage of species ranges, and that literature data has increased in coverage and volume over time. But ringing, atlas and website data have only been collected in the last 30 years.
'Currently no source provides absolutely comprehensive baseline data, which is what the museums used to do,' explains Boakes.
Recent funding cuts mean that many museums are unable to maintain their vast collections adequately. During their research the team came across many deteriorating specimens with labels that were impossible to read.
Although there were some examples where museum collections were duplicated in a database, the researchers found that in most situations this isn't the case. They recommend that valuable collections should be safeguarded by documenting them in databases.
'We were really surprised at how little recent data there were of common species. We now focus much more on rare species rather than common species. This means that common species are losing out.'
'Provided we recognise the problem now, there's definitely hope that we can keep track of future changes in numbers and spread of bird species,' she adds.