A two-year, $500,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation will allow a team of data scientists and ecologists to use eBird data to explore a new way to track pollinator health and biodiversity.
The project allows the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability to devise a new method of tracking the health of the all-important arthropod populations that are a part of pollinating one out of every three bites of food people eat – and it all starts with birds.
“We know many birds and pollinators respond similarly to farming practices, habitat conditions and landscape attributes,” said Amanda Rodewald, senior director of the Center for Avian Population Studies at the Cornell Lab and co-principal investigator for the grant.
For example, she said many bumblebees and bird species rely on the agricultural landscape. “If they respond similarly to changes in those resources,” said Rodewald, also the Garvin Professor in the Department of Natural Resources in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, “that would make the bird a suitable indicator for the bumblebee.”
The Walmart Foundation’s investment in Cornell is part of the corporation’s larger commitment to help reverse the loss of nature. Walmart’s efforts include promoting integrated pest management, encouraging fresh produce suppliers to phase out chlorpyrifos and neonicotinoid pesticides and improving and expanding pollinator habitats.
The project is bringing together data from the eBird database with existing pollinator data (primarily about native bees, but also beetles, butterflies, flies and other insects). By comparing these massive data sets, combined with land-use data, the team will identify which bird species could be used as reliable indicators of pollinator communities and the services they provide.
By and large, pollinator data at the scale and resolution needed to track populations is insufficient. Unlike birds, which can be surveyed by sight and sound, counting insect pollinators means catching pollinators and identifying them by microscope, which takes a lot more time and effort. That’s where eBird comes in.
“The 1 billion observations submitted to eBird by volunteers make it possible to create robust models of distribution, abundance and population trends for birds,” Rodewald said. “Once we have identified the bird species that closely track the pollinator communities, we unlock the potential for birds to be used as surrogates in cases where we lack sufficient data to directly monitor them.”
Patrick Beary, the Bruce H. Bailey Senior Director of Strategic Partnerships at Cornell Atkinson, said this new commitment from the world’s largest company shows there is an understanding of the importance of pollinators, and a strong interest in investing in protecting and restoring pollinator communities. Beary hopes this project could be a steppingstone to more coordinated nationwide efforts to this end.
“If we want to make real progress on protecting habitat and enhancing pollinator effectiveness then we need effective, efficient and scalable ways to measure progress,” Beary said. “The organizations and industries that care about pollinator health need tools to track results if their investments in management efforts are to be effective.”
Marc Devokaitis is the associate editor of Living Bird magazine at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.