Breeding Bird Atlases

Canadians are putting their passion for birding on the map!

Birds are effective indicators of environmental health because they respond quickly to environmental change, occupy every habitat type and are easy to survey. Breeding Bird Atlas projects engage thousands of volunteer citizen scientists to gather information that is used to map breeding bird distribution and relative abundance, within a defined geographic area. Atlases are typically five-year projects, designed to be repeated at regular intervals (usually every twenty years), that provide a standard assessment of the current status of breeding birds and lay the framework for evaluating long-term changes.

Atlas projects harness the collective skills of thousands of volunteers, delivering a major contribution to science, and ultimately, policy making. Since their inception more than 50 years ago, Atlas projects have gained international recognition as an invaluable tool for identifying critical habitat and setting conservation priorities, and have come to exemplify environmental partnership at its best, with governments, environmental organizations, nature groups, industry, professional biologists and the public all playing a vital, complementary roles.

BSC has pioneered the development of internet technologies to manage and present atlas information, and as a champion of volunteerism, is a key delivery partner in the second Maritimes Breeding Bird Atlas (for which fieldwork began in 2006) and the British Columbia Breeding Bird Atlas (for which fieldwork is set to begin in the spring of 2008). BSC also played a leading role in the recently completed second Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas, which will be available in book form early in 2008.

How do Breeding Bird Atlases work?

Atlases are grid-based – a province or other geographic region is divided into atlas "squares" (in Canada this is usually 10 km square blocks), which volunteers then go out and systematically survey, square by square, for evidence of breeding birds. These grid-based atlases differ from the distribution maps found in your favourite field guide because they represent a "snap-shot" in time, rather than a compilation of historical records, and present information on a fine enough scale that even small changes in breeding bird distribution will be apparent in the future.

What are the final products?

Most Breeding Bird Atlases have produced a final hard-copy publication describing where birds breed using maps and text (some previous publications are listed on the North American Ornithological Atlas Committee website). Increasingly, Atlas datasets are published as web-based databases equipped with interactive mapping and data summary tools. Participants and the public not longer have to wait for project completion to see results, instead Atlas progress, species occurrence and survey coverage can be tracked in real time over the course of the project.

Why are Atlases critical to conservation?

Atlas projects have both immediate and long-term applications. They provide frameworks for monitoring long-term changes in biodiversity across large geographic areas, which can in turn be related to changes in climate, habitat and land-use. They are unique in their ability to generate current and truly comprehensive inventory information, which greatly improves our understanding of what species occur where, in which habitats and in what numbers. This information feeds directly into conservation planning, management and policy-making, from identifying conservation priorities and areas of critical habitat, to assessment and recovery of species at risk, and helping to keep common birds common. Lastly, the participation of large numbers of volunteers brings different communities together with a collective interest in natural history, fosters a keens sense of environmental stewardship, and encourages hundreds of people to get out and actively enjoy nature.


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