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Project forecasts seasonal bird migration

Mon, 09/10/2012 - 2:54pm
Cornell University

Some of the broader goals of forecasting the seasonal migration of hundreds of millions of birds are to improve conservation, better understand the effects of climate change, and predict and mitigate potential environmental threats, said ornithologist Andrew Farnsworth, a Cornell research associate based in New York City, in describing BirdCast, a collaborative project between the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and six partner institutions.

In addressing members of the media at an Inside Cornell event Sept. 6 at the Cornell ILR Conference Center in New York City, Farnsworth said that BirdCast integrates biology, computer science and conservation.

"BirdCast will allow, for the first time, real-time predictions of bird migrations: when they migrate, where they migrate and how far they will be flying," Farnsworth said.

Researchers affiliated with the project -- a collaboration between Cornell and Oregon State University, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, Microsoft and the Leon Levy Foundation -- hope to create migration models that will forecast the species and number of birds migrating at any given time.

"Biologists are interested in understanding patterns of migration," Farnsworth said. This information will allow researchers to understand how the timing and pathways of migrating birds impact their responses to climate change, and whether there are links between variations in migration and changes in species' population size.

"Migration is a response to changes over proximate and evolutionary time scales; and going forward, some species will respond well to rapid climate change while others will not," Farnsworth said.

BirdCast information will combine knowledge gleaned from acoustical recordings of migrating birds, radar tracking and sightings by citizen scientists to determine when, where and how long birds migrate. Researchers are developing models that calculate numbers of birds from radar data, filtering out rain and other meteorological phenomena, insects and bats. Finally, "ground truth" data, or observations of species on the ground during the day, are collected at eBird.org. This database was launched in 2002 as joint project of The Cornell Lab and National Audubon Society. In time, the project will unify the data to create computer-generated, data-modeled forecasts and offer a smartphone app to facilitate the recording of ground truth observations.

"A huge percentage of bird migration, spanning the hemisphere, occurs at night," Farnsworth said. Birds rely on stars, magnetic fields and acoustical cues to navigate through the dark. Species that migrate at night take off 30 to 45 minutes after sunset. Some fly all night and land just before dawn.

Farnsworth hopes the forecasts will be so accurate that BirdCast will be able to predict on what day, for example, the first scarlet tanagers will pass through Central Park, or when birders can observe heavy migrations from atop the Empire State Building.

Forecasting migration will also aid in conservation efforts. For example, it could inform decisions about the location of wind turbines or potential hazards to birds passing through operating turbines. Forecasts could also help identify nights of heavy migration so cities could dim or extinguish lights on tall buildings to prevent the deaths of millions of birds. The forecasts can also alert air traffic controllers about potentially dangerous conditions when many birds may be flying close to airplanes, Farnsworth said.

He noted that BirdCast is nearing the end of its first year and is funded through 2015.

Inside Cornell is a monthly series held in New York City featuring high-interest experts working at Cornell's centers in Ithaca, Manhattan and around the world for members of the media.

Claire Curry is a freelance writer in New York City.

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