When birders with binoculars are better than supercomputers

Obsession makes humans good at finding things because they get distracted by anomalies and their fervour is driven by their emotions

It was just after dawn on Jan 3 and a freezing wind blew around my binoculars and into my face as I stood scanning a steely Atlantic bay. Suddenly, my eyes sorted out a thin conga line of ducks.

Surf scoters have white feathers that make them look like the white tips of waves. Looking for ducks on seawater is like standing in front of one of those mall paintings that hide a 3D picture of a dolphin. One moment is gibberish; the next is eureka. We were here to count birds - someone counted up to 30 scoters - but we were also pushing our senses and synapses together in hopes of those moments of discovery.

By joining the 116th Audubon Christmas Bird Count, I became one of more than 70,000 volunteers from Canada to South America who counted perhaps 70 million birds in the days between Dec 14 and Jan 5. (This year's count isn't tallied yet.)

While most of the world's important data is gathered by computers, governments and corporations, the annual bird count - which started in 1900 - is artisanal, a labour of love and feathery obsession. As old and personalised as it is, the bird count is a powerful way to collect data and a future model for understanding and responding to environmental issues on Earth - not to mention other planets.



I'm not a bird person. I like bugs, trees and sheep. But finding the scoters in the waves excited me in a way that looking at GPS blips on a screen never could, and I stayed focused through the cold winds over the next five hours as our party of five moved around Maine's Mere Point, surveying more ducks.

We counted 150 common eider, big gorgeous sea ducks whose males have a graphic Z of white feathers. There were also 150 long- tailed ducks, 300 scoters, 40 goldeneye, 15 buffleheads, nine mallards, one red-breasted merganser, two kinds of gulls, 20 Canada geese and maybe 900 scaups.

This wasn't just a count of birds, we were mapping the geography of ducks on the water - a duckography of Mere Point.

We were guided by Mr Don Hudson, a botanist who has been compiling this area's count for 35 years, and Ralph, a high school science teacher, who's been doing it almost as long, or maybe longer, he couldn't remember. They had worked with people who'd counted 40 years before them and so they were part of a chain of relationships stretching back to a famous ornithologist who did the count here in 1905.

The bird count has, at its core, concern about birds going extinct, but over the years that's morphed into surprising political power to stop those extinctions. Passenger pigeons once travelled in flocks so large they clouded out the sun, but by the mid-1890s the flocks were merely hundreds or dozens of birds. The very last passenger pigeon died in 1914.

The Audubon society introduced the count in 1900 as a way to induce people to appreciate birds rather than shoot them on Christmas Day, as was the custom. The count has created a database that has allowed scientists to continue to watch for signs of coming extinctions. A recent report used bird count data to anticipate how climate change might affect 588 species of birds in North America and found that 314 species are at risk.

The count also has a secret wea-pon: It simultaneously gathers needed data and mobilises concerned citizens to advocate on behalf of endangered birds. Among the birds that have been counted and saved from extinction are bald eagles, California condors, peregrine falcons and brown pelicans. Preserving millions of acres of wetlands has doubled populations of wetland birds since the 1960s.

Even though we were shivering in Maine, we were watching birds that fly from the tropics to the Arctic. We stood in a wooded area on the point counting songbirds like blue jays, red-breasted nuthatches, goldfinches, red-winged blackbirds - all expected.

Then a retiree in a red coat waved us over to see a real find: a hermit thrush. I had heard its haunting trill over the years, but it takes patience to see its brown plumage among the leaves.

Such persistence is surprisingly valuable. University of Washington researchers analysed more than 300 citizen science projects on biodiversity (like our bird-counting expedition) and found that the work of as many as 2.3 million volunteers amounts to a contribution of about US$2.5 billion (S$3.6 billion) to biodiversity research every year. Last autumn, the White House Office of Science and Technology began a push to formalise and expand more such citizen science projects.

Oddly enough, it's not that big of a jump from counting ducks to counting galaxies, and this is where humans outstrip computers. Tens of thousands of citizens have combed through space photos at sites like Galaxy Zoo, making significant discoveries that computers and experts have missed.

In 2007, a Dutch schoolteacher discovered Hanny's Voorwerp, a galaxy-sized gas cloud that looks like Kermit the frog. When CalTech scientists recently announced that there is likely an additional ninth planet out there in our solar system, but they haven't found it yet, they even invited backyard telescope enthusiasts to try to speed up the discovery process.

Obsession is what makes humans better than computers at finding things. Humans get distracted by anomalies and their fervour is driven by their emotions.

In a panel on citizen astronomy at the Kavli Foundation, Oxford astrophysicist Aprajita Verma observed: "It's very difficult to programme diversity and adaptability into any computer algorithm, whereas we kind of get it for free from the citizen scientists!"

Computers, you know, don't have eureka moments.

  • The writer writes the Small Science column for Zocalo Public Square, where she is the science and humanities editor.
  • This article first appeared in Zocalo Public Square, a project of the Centre for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and a not-for-profit "ideas exchange" that blends live events and humanities journalism.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline 'When birders with binoculars are better than supercomputers'. Print Edition | Subscribe