Before 1980, only 16,510 records of 1,021 species are available

With citizen science, especially in bird sightings, taking off in the country, scientists tried to use these online data to study if bird occurrence has altered across India over time. Though a lot of information is available after the 2000s, they found very little data before 1980 has been made available digitally, making comparisons impossible.

Comparisons are crucial in science and tell us how natural systems change over time. The effects of climate change are also usually studied this way: comparisons of climate and bird occurrences in the past, for instance, can tell us how changing climates could have led to the avian patterns of the present.

It was with this in mind that scientists at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and the University of Kansas accessed more than 2 million bird occurrence data points from across India to evaluate the “digital accessible knowledge” of bird species occurrences. They explored two sources: the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF, a network funded by the world’s governments focused on making scientific data on biodiversity available online); and eBird, the world’s largest biodiversity-related citizen science project where users contribute information on bird sightings.

“Curating this data using multiple levels of filtering took a huge amount of time,” said Gautam Talukdar (WII), co-author of a study published in Current Science.

Gaps in data

Finally, making sure each record had all necessary information including correct species names, they obtained 16,510 records of 1,021 species for the pre-1980 period, and 9,01,658 records of 1,151 species for post-2000, clearly showing good coverage after 2000, but a paucity of data before 1980. Their maps reveal that the most spatially dense data after 2000 was from Kerala. Jammu and Kashmir, the higher elevations across the Himalayan front, and northeastern India had very sparse data.

Incorporating information from the several museum specimens – in foreign and Indian museums, as well as institutional collections (such as those in the Zoological Survey of India) – could be crucial to generate bird occurrence data before 1980, said Dr. Talukdar.

These gaps need to be addressed, agreed Praveen J. of Bird Count India (an Indian collective that coordinates several birding activities and encourages using eBird for documentation).

“Old papers may now be online but their data are not in searchable databases yet,” Praveen said. “Even the field notebooks of some of India’s birding pioneers are still in private shelves and not digitised.”

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