Ever since people first appeared on the planet they have been watching birds, partly for fun and partly for science. In 1880, a Minnesota teacher named Wells Cooke decided to combine the two. He recruited volunteers to start taking notes about birds they saw. Over time, other bird groups all over the United States got involved.
The information they collected now fills hundreds of drawers in old card catalogs at a U.S. Geological Survey office near Washington D.C.
"This is all the original cards here. And then, we have like nest records and, this is information on the observers," program director Jessica Zelt told ABC7, exhibiting parts of the project.
The North American Bird Phenology Program contains information on birds from Alaska, to California, to the East Coast. Volunteers continued sending in the cards for 90 years until 1970. At the peak of the project as many as 3,000 volunteers were participating.
The project focused on bird migration. Volunteers noted the dates that birds arrived in the spring and left in the fall. For instance, one card notes that one Baltimore oriole was last seen on September 9, 1924. Each card is carefully filed according to where the birds were seen because for example, Baltimore orioles do not just live in Baltimore.
"So, we have Canada, the United States, then it goes later into some of the islands, the Bahamas," Zelt explained.
There are 6 million cards with information about roughly 900 species of birds. It is a century of precious data that could help answer questions about global warming.
"What we're doing, is we're trying to learn about how climate change is affecting migratory birds," said Zelt.
The challenge is to make the information easier for scientists to use. That means entering all this data into computers. Once again, the project is turning to volunteers all over the country. One group scans the cards. Then, they are available online so other volunteers in other cities can look at them at home and enter the information into a database.
Joyce Ycasas works for the San Francisco Health Department. In her spare time she transcribes cards.
"I really love the idea of citizen scientists. And, it's a great way to contribute," she said.
Volunteer Henry Rosenthal is an independent film maker in the Bay Area. He says people do not have to be bird experts to do this work.
"I'm not an ornithologist myself. I just type like one," he said pointing out that it is very rewarding. "You feel a connection to the time and the place, and the people who were taking the trouble to record this information," he said.
Once all the information is entered into computers it will be available to the public for research.
"If we can take this data of what we have today and compare it to what was happening over a hundred years ago, we might be able to see a lot more and be able make a difference and figure out where changes are actually happening, and maybe readjust to save some species or to save some wetlands somewhere," said volunteer Melissa Kennedy.
Volunteers have transcribed about 200,000 of the 6 million cards and could use more help. It is work people can do from home.
Written and produced by Jennifer Olney