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Birding for the greater good

October 02 2019


Birding for the greater good

Being one of the world’s most renowned birders, Jessie Barry is a calm and modest woman. Her warm smile radiates through the room. Together with Team Sapsucker, she broke the North American record for most bird sightings within 24 hours in 2013, yet her down-to-earth attitude makes it easy to talk to this brilliant scientist. With her EL 12x50 binoculars always at hand, this dedicated ornithologist cannot help but constantly notice the birds in her surroundings. As inspiring teacher, Jessie is inviting everyone to start birding, become a community scientist, and contribute to bird conservation this way.




What drives you in your everyday work?

I always had and still have this strong wish of getting more people excited about birds. Luckily, I found my home at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It offers this amazing combination where birding meets ornithology and where we can engage a community to collect scientifically valuable data. It is the perfect spot for me to be able to use science to inform conservation action and most importantly to engage people in that process.


What does birding mean to you?

I just find it so personally rewarding to be able to go to a random spot, do an eBird checklist and contribute something valuable back. You might wonder: “Why am I standing in the middle of this parking lot at a grocery store?” But that is just the moment when you find those three minutes and put in a bird list. Something is documented there that is going to be useful. There might not be that many birds around, but it is important that we get to understand those differences in habitat. So you’ll find me doing lots of random checklists that might not have that many birds on them. However, it is so important to document the absence of birds as well, not only their presence.Birding for me is that constant pursuit to explore and discover more.




Could you imagine a life without birding?

I cannot imagine a life without birds. Neither can I imagine not noticing the birds flying by. So, it is hard to imagine not being birding. However, it has become easier to imagine a world that does not have all these species in it. I am seeing the change in some species in my neighborhood where I grew up. So I am just continually concerned that we need to act faster. It does contribute to intrigue of birding, though, because areas you visited already might have changed in habitat. Thus, the birds you know might not be there anymore. Of course, that concern definitely weighs on me. I am, however, convinced that it is not the time to give up. We have to have hope and not dwell on the negative. Changes are happening, but what can we do about them? I like to stay on the positive side and see the opportunities we have to contribute to bird conservation and welfare.


Do you have any tips or tricks for people who want to have a more enriching birding experience? Or for those who want to improve their birding skills?

I kindly invite them to explore all the tools in eBird and Merlin. There is a lot there that can really help you to take the next step. There is so much that you can dig into. You can look at bar charts, stats and maps. It will help you notice details that can lead you to that next layer of discovery. The vast amount of information at your disposal can be almost overwhelming, because you do not know where to start. But just go step by step. I love the “Explore Birds” feature in Merlin. I look it up all the time to see when species are coming back. Why have I not seen cowbirds all winter? Maybe I just have not been looking? We have the benefit now that many people are sharing their sightings. The community is there offering their information. Maybe not in the traditional ways (get-togethers, nights at bird club meetings), because a lot is happening online nowadays, but there is a chance to connect with fellow birders through the tools. In the eBird database, we try to create those visualizations and connections between birders.




What can citizen science (also called “community science”) contribute to bird conservation?

We are just at the beginning of understanding bird abundance and distribution and how that changes through time. The more we learn, the more we can share with conservation practitioners.Personally, I am most inspired by the potential that we have with the Status and Trends maps in eBird to inform conservation action. I was fortunate to be at a meeting where a lot of leaders of conservation projects came together. We presented this data and the powerful visualizations. They asked us whether they could use these maps. When we said yes, the entire room gasped. It is so rewarding to be able to support conservation action like this.

Another important aspect to me is getting more people birding for the first time and that they start to contribute data for science through Merlin. That is what drives me every day. I strongly believe that we have to get more people to care about birds. Scientists are not going to change the world. We have to engage the community to bring about lasting improvements.


The more accurate the data contributed by citizen scientists is, the better it is for any conservation action that may follow. When you start to engage in community science, you might feel insecure about your bird ID skills. Good to know that SWAROVSKI OPTIK will launch a product in spring 2020 that will help you to document, identify and share your bird discoveries: the digital guide.


Find out what powerful features the digital guide has to offer or seize your chance to test a prototype at one of the upcoming events.


Does your strength lie in app development?

Then, you may consider developing an app that makes use of the fascinating digital guide. Further details will follow in the first half of 2020 when the product will be launched.

In the meantime, stay tuned at #digitalguide.


About Jessie Barry

Jessie started watching birds while growing up on the shore of Lake Ontario in Rochester, NY. Her passion for birds combined with expertise in leveraging today’s technology to engage birders in ornithological discovery guides her work. She joined the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in 2008 as the Assistant Curator in the Macaulay Library, then went on to help kick start the Merlin Bird ID app, and now guides the integration of the Macaulay Library, Merlin, and eBird as Program Manager. Whenever possible, she heads out with her EL, ATX or BTX, and sound equipment gear to go birding


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