Today, the National Audubon Society is launching an interactive, free digital platform that combines bird distribution and migration maps with conservation data for 458 species of migratory birds. It’s called the Bird Migration Explorer, and it displays its information from hemispheric to local levels.
Audubon partnered with nine other conservation and research organizations and incorporated data from more than 500 studies about birds. The partner groups are: Birds Canada, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, Bird Genoscape Project, BirdLife International, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Esri, Georgetown University, Movebank, and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.
Three types of data
The Bird Migration Explorer brings together three types of geospatial bird data: occurrence data from eBird Status & Trends models from Cornell Lab of Ornithology; connectivity data from the USGS Bird Banding Lab and Bird Genoscape Project; and tracking data from Birds Canada, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, and hundreds of researchers from across the globe, who generously contributed their datasets to this project. Audubon scientists and cartographers consolidated these data to create animated and interactive visualizations to bring species migration to life on a map.
Revealing insights about the full annual cycles of migratory birds and the conservation challenges they face, the Bird Migration Explorer also draws point-to-point connections made by tracked migratory birds that travel between any two locations on the hemisphere. We can see when and where our local migratory species will be headed and what challenges they face along the way.
In light of losing more than 3 billion North American birds since 1970 (2.5 billion of which are migratory) and being in a Golden Age of migration tracking technology, the Bird Migration Explorer will bring the wonder and perils of migration right to anyone’s screen (right now optimized for desktop and tablet).
“Of the 10 countries with the greatest number of globally threatened birds, six of them are in Americas, as the 2022 State of the World’s Birds Report shows,” says Patricia Zurita, the CEO of BirdLife International. “In that context, the Bird Migration Explorer is a vital new tool to illuminate crucial bird conservation opportunities and help reimagine conservation investments across the Western Hemisphere, building on Important Bird Areas and other key scientific work. We’re excited to put this tool to use and make a difference for biodiversity and communities.”
Four years in the making
The site offers users three search options: bird species, locations, and conservation challenges. You can search, for example, by a location name or ZIP code and find the bird species that are round in the area and the conservation challenges they face locally.
Jill Deppe, senior director of Audubon’s Migratory Bird Initiative, says work on the project began nearly four years ago.
“These maps bring migration to life in a way that we couldn’t explain just by giving you numbers or telling you,” she says. “Most of these birds are spending most of the year outside of the United States. But where? You want to see the big picture. So, we’re taking all of the puzzle pieces and putting them together in these maps. You can see how far they travel, how quickly they travel, or how much time they’re in other places.”
Deppe notes that the Explorer can drive home a powerful fact: that what we do or don’t do for birds at our homes matters for our feathered friends.
“What we are hoping that people understand with the Explorer is that the actions that they take at home — planting native plants and making their houses bird friendly by trying to avoid window collisions — that the birds use the places where you live,” she says. “When you see that, you’ll realize how connected you are, and that means that the small things that you do in your backyard or your community have really big impacts.”
For conservation managers, the Explorer seems poised to be a game-changer. Deppe said that recently, as the map resource was in its final development, an Audubon policy staff member used it to write comments to a government agency about a proposed oil and gas drilling project. The Explorer could show which species could be found in the area, when they were present, and other facts. The staff member previously would have had to spend a lot of time searching through various sources for the same information, but now it was at their fingertips.
If you spend even a little time with the Explorer, you’ll notice hexagon shapes on individual maps for birds. Deppe explains that they represent different size areas — either 150 kilometers or 50 kilometers across depending on how much you zoom in. The information within a 50-km hexagon doesn’t change if you continue to zoom in because the Explorer is summarizing data over fairly large areas. So, you won’t be able to drill down to the scale of a small city park, for example, but the available map data would still be useful to show which birds are in a certain region.
“This isn’t the kind of tool that we expect somebody to use if they were making decisions on a parcel level,” she adds. “Where should I protect an area of land or where should I invest in land management? That’s not the purpose of the map.”
Deppe says the resource will be updated every three to six months to reflect new research papers on bird migration, eBird records, and other data.
Soon, she adds, the site will incorporate data on seabirds. Oceangoing species have much less coverage on eBird than land birds, so mapping their movements requires compiling information from a variety of sources to put the puzzle pieces together. Deppe says that adding seabirds to the platform is a “first priority” after the Explorer launches.
Congratulations to everyone who has helped get the Bird Migration Explorer off the ground! It’s a remarkable resource with wide applicability. As Scott Sillett, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, notes:
“In times of uncertainty, birds are a symbol of hope, connectivity, and perseverance. This new platform brings vital research together and shows how birds connect communities, countries, and continents.”