When everyday people go out into nature and enter their findings into citizen science apps, they are providing valuable information for researchers. But public data about the exact location of a plant or animal can make it vulnerable. This great article from Yale Environment 360 details a poaching case in South Africa. But how does this kind of data affect local wildlife? We asked NM board member, Christian Artuso (Bird Studies Manitoba), about the risks and rewards of citizen science for monitoring Manitoba birds.
NM: Are there ways that monitoring data collected from sources such as eBird or iNaturalist could be used to harm local birds (or other species)?
CA: Although for the most part, these data serve very useful purposes, there are unfortunately some cases where sensitive species can be harmed by information shared too freely. The very worse cases pertain to poaching (or other forms of trapping wild animals), but more common are excessive attention by too many observers or photographers to the point that the animal’s ability to forage is compromised. In some cases, there have also been problems with trespassing and disrespect of private property by birders or photographers trying to follow eBird data to its source. iNaturalist has always been very careful about this and offers users several excellent ways to buffer location information (i.e. public only see a general area not a precise area, but a researcher who wanted to conduct analysis could request precise locations). Xeno-canto, a database of bird song, blocks the public from downloading the song of certain species that are frequently trapped. eBird has been heavily criticised for failing to enact some measure of protection for vulnerable birds but they recently introduced the “sensitive species” designation so the locations of certain species are hidden. There is also the older “hide from eBird output” option that a user can select, but it has weaknesses. Scientific journals have databases that have also been abused by collectors and poachers, including devastating small and vulnerable populations.
NM: Are there any species you can think of that might be specifically vulnerable? If so, why?
CA: In North America, raptors and especially owls attract excess attention, and this can lead to disturbance. This is much less of a problem in Manitoba where there are fewer people, but owls here can still suffer excess attention in some contexts. Publically available location information can lead to other problems too, such as baiting and trapping. Owls are easily habituated, and baiting them for photography purposes comes with an extreme risk that their habituated state will lead to their death. They fly low and slow and get hit frequently (in the recent IUCN listing of Snowy Owl as vulnerable, vehicle collisions are cited as a threat), and the risk is exacerbated with habituation.
NM: Would you say the benefits of having the data collected by citizen science initiatives/apps outweigh the risks these might pose to local wildlife? Why or why not?
CA: Yes, I believe so. These massive datasets have enormous value and can be used in so many ways to benefit conservation. It is a little sad that human excesses make them vulnerable to abuse, but there are also ways to safeguard against that. With a few simple precautions (precautions that birders have always been aware of regarding information sharing), these datasets can achieve their full potential without jeopardising the birds we care about.
NM: What are some of the benefits of citizen science to your work and general conservation?
CA: The North American Breeding bird Survey, Christmas Bird Count, Great Backyard Bird Count, Project Feederwatch, Manitoba Nocturnal Owl Survey, Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas, Manitoba Important Bird Area program, Manitoba Chimney Swift Initiative, and others are all built upon the principles of citizen-science. The trend and population information generated is vital for our assessments of which species are at risk and in need of conservation action. These large scale projects that help us understand the big picture complement detailed research at smaller scales to build up a picture of threats and conservation priorities. We would have no way to assess the bigger picture without citizen-science. Citizen-science also has another advantage in turns of public engagement. Citizens donate their time and skill but they also “learn on the job” and become more aware of the natural world around them and/or changes. Citizen-science is slowly helping to build a more engaged citizenry that can be a voice for the birds and animals we will lose if we are not careful.
NM: Are there ways people can collect data and lessen the risk of harm to the species they are monitoring/recording?
CA: As an observer, adopt a “do no harm” philosophy and try to be cognisant of the subtle reactions of animals (though this takes time). Sometimes a birder will accidently flush a bird and that cannot be helped but birders can limit the time of their observation of any one animal, maintain a respectful distance, use a vehicle as a blind where possible, and use other ways to minimise disturbance. Animals will always react to our presence but a little discipline and developing some personal rules of thumbs really helps. When you use a database, ask yourself if a sighting will attract too much attention and “buffer” the location accordingly.
NM: What are the best practices people should be using when monitoring/recording local plants and wildlife?
CA: This is the same principle. Plants are collected just as animals are (in fact it is even easier), so if you are documenting a plant that might attract attention for a variety of reasons, such as some orchids or wild American ginseng in eastern North America, then take appropriate precautions. You would be mortified to come back and discover your find had been dug up!