Citizen science is current science – atlasing the birds of Kerala

Kerala Bird Atlas is an ambitious citizen science project to map the distribution and abundance of birds of an entire Indian state. Envisaged as a five-year activity starting 2015, the field surveys for the Kerala Bird Atlas closed on the 13th of September 2020. Over 1000 volunteers systematically surveyed 4,000 locations in each of two seasons across Kerala over 600 days across five years.

Image credit: https://birdcount.in/kerala-bird-atlas/

This data was analyzed to understand the patterns of species richness and abundance across Kerala, as well as recommendations, were made on how to conduct similar surveys in other parts of the country. The scientific merit of this dataset was tested and results were published in a peer-reviewed, open-access journal Current Science, published from Bangalore. Recognizing the impact of such citizen-science-based research, the journal has put up this multi-author work on the cover page of its latest edition.

What the Kerala Atlas team has achieved is, arguably, the largest citizen science bird project in the Asian continent in terms of spatial coverage, species monitored, and a number of volunteers or citizen-scientists. This exercise generated voluminous data consisting of over 3 lakh records of 380 species. The data consists of the presence records of these species in two seasons across 4000 sites in Kerala.

Approx 70% of the Kerala bird species were recorded during the Kerala Bird Atlas. Ten most abundant species contributed 31% while 94 very rare species contributed 0.1% to the entire dataset. The northern and central Kerala host higher species richness than southern Kerala. Most of the endemics were concentrated in the  Western  Ghats,  but threatened species were as likely to occur along the coasts as in the  Ghats. The Kerala Bird Atlas dataset is a very useful tool for research and conservation and can act as a prototype for a national bird atlas.

 Quotes

When an organization used citizens to collect data, it used to be called citizen science. With Kerala Bird Atlas, we defined a new meaning for citizen science. Here, the citizens actually did the science as well. Citizen scientists of the project are elated to see their earnest efforts bear fruit with this publication in the most well-respected scientific journal in the country”.

Praveen J, one of the state coordinators of this project.

“I was personally there at Thrissur when the Kerala birdwatchers brainstormed their plans for the bird atlas in 2015. We at IBCN/BNHS seed-funded the effort for the very first year and I am excited to see the scientific outputs of this massive effort. Biodiversity data at this fine-scale is the need of the hour for policy and management of wildlife in India. Atlases like this also show us the important places that need conservation. At the time of climate change, it’s so heartening that birders in Kerala have made such an important contribution to our understanding of both birds and their habitats”.

Neha Sinha, a conservation biologist and author at the BNHS, India.

“As a mega biodiverse nation, India has a key role to play in conserving global biodiversity. We currently lack data on the current population status of our fauna. These atlases provide baseline information on the status and distribution of bird species. This will help us monitor their populations over years and identify the impact of global warming, pollution, or land-use changes on biodiversity. With this information in hand, we can take conservation actions on time and prevent biodiversity loss.”

Ashish Jha, Research Scientist who analyzed the Kerala Bird Atlas and is the corresponding author for the scientific paper.

“I would like to warmly congratulate the Kerala Bird Survey team who systematically carried out detailed surveys of 380 bird species in Kerala. This resulted in mapping the distribution densities of these species in the state – an impressive achievement by Citizen Science work. A huge dataset was accumulated which is an invaluable baseline on which to assess future changes in bird distribution and density in Kerala. Birds are now facing enormous challenges including loss and deterioration of their habitats and the still poorly understood impacts of climate change. A similar distribution survey in the future would undoubtedly reveal changes in species’ occurrence and density. The data could be used to produce a Red List for birds in Kerala as was achieved in Nepal in 2016, based on a Citizen Science approach. This Red List could be valuable in assessing priorities for bird conservation action.”

Carol Inskipp, author of many popular field guides on the birds of the Indian subcontinent.

“This is a milestone achievement in Indian Ornithology and for the future of citizen-science activities in the country. Currently, several citizen-science programs are being run in the nation, largely at the city level. The Kerala Bird Atlas and the resulting peer-reviewed publication will definitely inspire researchers and nature enthusiasts in other states to come together and conduct similar programs. It is heartening to see that the citizens who contributed to this exercise are co-authors in the scientific publication.”

Suhel Quader a the Scientist Nature Conservation Foundation which is a part of Bird Count India.

“Bird atlas of this extent has not been attempted anywhere in Asia. The next step is to utilize the potential of this voluminous dataset and derive academic and conservation-oriented inferences. The data has been made publicly available. Our manuscript lists potential uses of this dataset. We invite students and researchers to use this dataset. I am positive that the Kerala Bird Atlas will create momentum for citizen-science and open science in the country.”

P.O.Nameer, Dean, College of Climate Change and Environmental Science, Kerala Agricultural University, Vellanikkara

FAQ

How were the atlas locations selected?

Kerala has first divided into many cells of size 6.6 x 6.6 km. Each cell was divided into four quadrants of size 3.3 x 3.3 km. Each quadrant was divided into nine 1.1 x 1.1 km sub-cell. Among the nine subcells in each quadrant – one subcell was randomly selected. Hence, each cell has four sub-cells.

Who lead the atlas bird surveys?

Every district had a team led by one or two senior bird-watchers. They conducted meetings and planned the coverage of subcells in their respective districts and kept in touch through Whatsapp groups. Some districts sub-divided themselves into clusters and each cluster was owned by a few bird-watchers. Forest surveys were planned by district leaders inviting birdwatchers from all parts of the state and sometimes from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra.

Which groups and organizations were involved in the survey?

Following organizations were involved in the field surveys 

Alappuzha Nature History Society (ANHS), Birders Ezhupunna, Birdwatchers of Kerala, Chilla Nature Club (CNC), Cochin Natural History Society (CNHS), Hume’s CEntre for Ecology and Wildlife Biology (HCEWB), Idukki Natural History Society (INHS), Kasaragode Birders, KeralaBirder, Kidoor Birders, Kole Birders Collective, Kollam Birding Batallion, Kottayam Nature Society (KNS), Malabar Natural History Society (MNHS), Malappuram Birders, Natural History Society of Palakkad (NHSP), Pathanamthitta Birders, Tropical Institute of Ecological Sciences (TIES), World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), and Young Birders Club, Palakkad.

Following organizations provided technical support

Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), Bird Count India (BCI), and Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON).

Following organizations provided financial support

Duleep Matthai Nature Conservation Trust, Gujarat funded the data analysis and publications.

Antrix Corporation provided funds for the printing of the Atlas book

Dr. Jayan Thomas provided funds for the printing of Kannur bird atlas

CGH Earth provided funds for the printing of  Alappuzha bird atlas

Indian Bird Conservation Network BNHS provided a small grant in the first year of the study.

What was the role of the Kerala Forest Department in Kerala Bird Atlas?

PCCF (Wildlife) and the Chief Wildlife Warden, Kerala State Forest Department, accorded sanction for the bird surveys in protected areas and reserve forests for the atlas. The Forest department supported these surveys, which were mostly run for four days, in accessing interior locations and arranged stay and services of forest staff. In some non-forest regions, the Social Forestry wing of the Forest department helped volunteers to reach far-off places where no other volunteers lived.

What technology was used to do atlasing?

The Kerala map was gridded into cells using GIS scripts to produce a KML file. Random numbers were generated from www.random.org. Webpage about the atlas protocol was hosted in www.birdcount.in. A dashboard using javascript showing the subcell locations was created in GitHub for every district. Atlas volunteers used the eBird App to record bird sightings and Locus Free App to find the location of the subcell while in the field. Route maps for difficult locations were created using QGIS. Atlas survey status was updated in Google Spreadsheets by linking the respective eBird lists and reflected in the dashboard instantaneously. R Scripts were used to analyze the downloaded data from www.ebird.org and create atlas maps. Atlas reports were generated using Scribus.

When will the report be released?

District atlases of Alappuzha, Thrissur, and Kannur have already been formally released in 2020. Draft reports of Kottayam, Kozhikode, and Kasaragod have been submitted to the Kerala Forest Department. 

The State Bird Atlas under the title ‘An atlas of birds of Kerala’ was released on Feb 25, 2021.

We expect the final report ‘The Kerala Bird Atlas: features and insights’ to be released by March 2022.

What do you expect as results from the Kerala Bird Atlas bird surveys?

‘An atlas of birds of Kerala’ provides the season-wise distribution map for 382 species. 

The upcoming report The Kerala Bird Atlas: features and insights will have the following. 

  1. Current distribution of ~150 widespread and abundant birds of Kerala
  2. Consolidated distribution of bird communities in Kerala (e.g. waterbirds)
  3. Predicted distribution of the bird communities in the next 25 years under different climate and land use change scenarios.
  4. Predicted distribution of certain key species in these declining and increasing bird communities in the next 25 years.
  5. Hotspots for endemic and threatened bird diversity
  6. Identification of key focus areas outside the Protected Area network for conservation action.

Appendix: Useful Websites & News links

https://birdcount.in/kerala-bird-atlas/ [Home page of Kerala Bird Atlas]

Slides & Talk

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For More Information

Dr. P O Nameer, Special Officer, Academy of Climate Change Education and Research, Kerala Agricultural University, Vellanikkara, KAU P.O., Thrissur Kerala 680656. Email: nameer.po@kau.in. Whatsapp No: 94465 73106

Praveen J, Bird Count India. Email: paintedstork@gmail.com Whatsapp No: 99000 28479 

District Information

Vishnupriyan Kartha, Cochin Natural History Society. Whatsapp No: 94464 37410 [Ernakulam District]

E S Praveen, Kole Birders Collective. Whatsapp No: 94474 67088 [Thrissur District]

Praveen V, Natural History Society of Palakkad. Whatsapp No: 98405 45268 [Palakkad District]

Dr. Jishnu R, Kollam Birding Battalion. Whatsapp No: 94471 50300 [Kollam District]

Hari Mavelikkara, Pathanamthitta Birders. Whatsapp No: 94472 24651 [Pathanamthitta District]

AK Sivakumar, WWF-India, Thiruvananthapuram district. Whatsapp No: 94473 86978 [Thiruvananthapuram district]

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