Citizen Science in African Ornithology

Posted 24 August 2020 by NISC under Announcements & Notices • Journal: Ostrich: Journal of African Ornithology
Citizen Science in African Ornithology

In South Africa, citizen science gained momentum with the first South African Bird Atlas Project in the late 1980s and early 1990s, coordinated by the Avian Demography Unit (ADU) at the University of Cape Town. This project generated approximately seven million bird records from thousands of volunteers who simply submitted lists of birds seen in a defined grid square over monthly periods. This was the first large scale project of this nature in Africa and was deemed an enormous success, producing the first evidence-based bird atlas for southern Africa, where for the first time distributions of bird species were accurately mapped (Harrison et al. 1997). 

During the latter half of the 20th century, it was becoming clear that ordinary citizens could play important roles in helping biodiversity scientists to amass data, based solely on their interest in specific aspects of natural history. Birdwatching (or birding) in particular has seen enormous growth over the past 40–50 years and through technological advances, amateur birders have managed to greatly increase their identification and monitoring skills.

A special suite in the latest issue of Ostrich Journal of African Ornithology, Volume 91, Issue 2, contains papers grappling with the field of citizen science in African Ornithology. The papers that are included in this section deal with the diversity of different citizen-science based bird-monitoring projects. Harrison (2020) sets the scene with a personal perspective of citizen science and the way in which it has shaped scientific understanding in South Africa and how it is a worthwhile undertaking that should continue. Rose et al. (2020) highlight the response of citizen scientists in South Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how a refocus on birds in gardens and local open spaces connected and reconnected people to nature and biodiversity, while continuing to collect data and ensure societal well-being.

Post-2000, the ADU, BirdLife South Africa, South African National Biodiversity Institute and the Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology have continued with a variety of citizen-based projects, ranging from birds (second atlas) to reptiles, butterflies, dragonflies and even fungi. This special issue pays tribute to and celebrates the achievements of the work carried out by citizen scientists in South Africa. People, particularly with a deep interest in nature, are starting to recognise the intricate links between nature and humanity, and how the preservation of species and habitats is crucial to sustain all life on Earth. 

Through the involvement of thousands of volunteers, allied with the collection of millions of biodiversity records, scientists and conservationists can now use and model these data in an integrated way for conservation planning purposes in South Africa, and also throughout the rest of Africa, where similar initiatives are now under way. The increased amount of data obtained and made available via citizen-science contributions would not have been possible solely using professional scientists and academics, and the results to date are showing that given a simple, scientifically sound protocol, volunteers can generate enormous amounts of robust data that can contribute to conservation policy and advocacy.

The special suite  is available to read at no cost until the end of September here.

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