Thumbnail image: Hari K Patibanda/Macaulay Library

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Welcome, to today’s webinar, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Count India. We’ll be discussing the success that Bird Count India has had, in engaging communities across India, participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count. GBBC, as it’s commonly referred, is an annual, global bird-watching event, that runs in February. In the United States, it runs over President’s Day weekend. And in Canada, it’s called, the Family Day weekend. This year, those dates are Friday, February 17, through Monday, February, 20.

So my name is Becca Rodomsky-Bish, and I am the Project Leader for the Great Backyard Bird Count, at the Cornell Lab. And I will be helping, to facilitate today’s conversation, with representatives from Bird Count India. We will get to meet our guests, here, in just a few minutes. And I’m really grateful that they’re willing, to speak with us, today, to talk about this wonderful activity in their country.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a collaborative effort, from the Cornell Lab, Birds Canada, and National Audubon Society. Wild Birds Unlimited is our founding sponsor. Bird Count India was participating– has been participating, actually, in GBBC, for many years now. And they’ve really taken this event and made it their own. So we’re really excited, to hear how they’ve grown this project, over the years. And we’ll introduce our guests, here, in just a few minutes.

Today’s webinar, however, is hosted in Ithaca, New York. So there’s quite a time difference, between India and Ithaca. And we’re excited to be able to make this happen, despite the time difference. Because we are in Ithaca, I want to read a statement, acknowledging the Indigenous people, as the original inhabitants in this region. Cornell University is located in the traditional homelands of the Gayogohó:no, the Cayuga Nation.

The Gayogohó:no are members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. That’s an alliance between six sovereign nations, with historic and contemporary presence, on this land. The Confederacy precedes establishment of Cornell University, New York State, and the United States of America. We acknowledge the painful history of the Gayogohó:no dispossession and honor the ongoing connection of the Gayogohó:no people, past and present, to these lands and waters. Thank you. And if our guests, from Birds Count India, would go ahead and turn on their videos, we will welcome them.

Wonderful. Let’s see. I’m going to just change my view. There we all are. Hello. Good evening, I shall say, to you all. I am going to have you each, introduce yourselves, in just a few minutes. But Mittal, Praveen, and Ganeshwar.

And I’m so sorry. Please, correct my mispronunciations. I am still learning. If each of you would just take a minute, and share with us your name, where you are coming from, and your position in your organization. And how long you’ve been passionate about birds, and engaged in this kind of work, in your country? And Mittal, if you would go first.

[Mittal Gala] Hello. Thanks, Becca, thanks, Chelsea, for having us here, and giving us this platform to talk about India and our experiences. So hello, everyone. My name is Mittal Gala. And I’m from Bombay, but I moved in Bangalore, to work with Bird Count India. So I work as the Project Coordinator, and I have been birding for almost 15 years now.

And I think one of the most early memories– fascinating memories, of me, looking at birds, was when I saw a large bird, a black and white bird. Beautiful-looking bird with a large yellow beak. And I saw, it was feeding on pigs. And I got very excited. And I called my friends, at school, to say that I saw a toucan. And everybody was excited. And it was much later, I realized, that toucans are not found in India, and the bird that I saw was a pied hornbill.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Wow

[Mittal Gala] Which is still a very interesting episode. Because a lot of old bird watchers don’t believe this. But, yeah, I would like to think, that I have come a long way, since that incident of misidentifying a hornbill. And over the last couple of years, of interacting with hundreds of bird watchers in India, has very it has been very rewarding.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Wonderful.

[Mittal Gala] Thanks.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] That’s a great story. I love it. I love when we’re learning, and we discover those memories, even about our own journey. It’s nice. And then, Praveen, how about you?

[Praveen J] Thanks, Becca, and Chelsea, for organizing this. And thanks to everyone, at Cornell, out there. So I am Praveen. I lead work on India. I’ve been with Cornell, officially, for a little more than a year. But I’ve been always involved, since the inception, in 2013. About my birding. I’ve been birding about 30 years now. Birding and listing for 30 years.

So when I actually saw eBird in 2013, it was looking exactly like my notebook. I had the complete list. I had exactly the start time, and time, location. And this tool, which is in front of me, is exactly what I had in my feed notebook. So that’s how I got hooked on to it. So being involved in several projects out– well, while I was outside, technically, of Bird Count India, we [INAUDIBLE] the capacity. But I’ve been with the organization since last– 2021 now. So good to have you, and speak with you. Thank you.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Absolutely. Thank you. I love that you were eBirding. You were doing it. You were doing the real version, right there. Because a lot of birders, when they get into eBird, they don’t realize that start and end times, all those details are so important. And so good on you for already being a birder, before eBird existed. [LAUGHING] Because it hasn’t been around too, too long. Wonderful. Great to have you. And then, Ganeshwar, would you like to introduce yourself?

[Ganeshwar SV] Thank you, Becca, and Chelsea, and too, everyone at Cornell. And a special thanks to Bird Count India, for inviting me for this special meet. My name is Ganeshwar, and I am from Salem. And I’m the Founder and Director of Salem Ornithological Foundation. And I have been birding since 2007.

And since 2007, for the next five years, I had not known anyone. I didn’t know that field dates existed. I just didn’t know anything. So I got to know about eBird and GBBC, from 2013– 2010, 2014, starting. So from then on, I just really got hooked to eBird. And it has been a defining moment in my career. I should say that.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Yeah. Nice. Wonderful. That’s great. You were pretty early on. So GBBC became a part of eBird in 2013. So you are right there, in the beginning, when we started to merge our data and projects with eBird. Wonderful. Well, I’m honored to have you guys here, today. I think we may have lost Mittal. But should we go ahead and pause for a minute, or? oh, there she is. She’s back. Hello.

[Mittal Gala] I wasn’t sure, whether I am supposed to keep my video on, when someone is speaking.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Yeah. No, go ahead and keep your– we’ll just all stay on, for the rest of the talk. It’s great. So we can all, see, each other’s faces. And please, feel free, if one of you wants to add, to anybody, anything that they’ve shared, go ahead and jump in. This is designed to be very much a conversation. So don’t be shy. We want to see your faces. So, yeah, the first question I have, which you got to a little bit, in your answers, is to just tell us a little bit about Birds Count India. How did your organization start. And what’s the mission of it? And has that mission changed a little bit, over time, as you guys have grown, and you’ve been able to reach more parts and regions within India.

[Mittal Gala] So I give a bit of history, about how Bird Count India started. So before it was known as Bird Count India, it began with a citizen science project, called MigrantWatch, which was which was started in 2007, to better understand the timings of bird migration, to and from India. And the project had a web interface, where birdwatchers could upload their migrant sightings and photographs.

And although MigrantWatch was able to accumulate some 30,000 observations, it eventually became clear that the data were of limited use, because of the absence of information on effort. Like, for example, duration of birding distance traveled, that comes with complete checklist. And then, in 2013, while searching for a better platform to work with, it became clear that eBird, which had just become global, could offer many additional features. Both for participants, as well as for scientific use. And eBird’s structure and features could be used, to engage more effectively, with birdwatchers, with amateur birders, naturalists. And, at the same time, obtain scientific information on India’s birds.

And Bird Count India was started, with an effort, to get Indian birders involved in the first global edition of the GBBC. And that was in 2013. And thereafter, it has evolved into an umbrella of like-minded groups, working for bird documentation throughout the year. And our mission and vision hasn’t changed since the time it has been started. Yeah.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Nice. Have you noticed that your numbers of people, that are really excited about your work, has grown, however, in the last decade or so?

[Mittal Gala] Sorry. Say that again?

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Have you noticed that there’s more and more people, interested in what you’re doing, and participating in your events, in the last decade?

[Mittal Gala] Yes. Yes. So this global event, actually, was the event which, actually, inspired a lot of bird watchers to create regional events, in their own states. For example, the Bengal Bird Count, which happens in Tamil Nadu. And on Onum Bird Count, which happens in Kerala. Then, Assam has its own state event. So they all started looking, at how events, can inspire people.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Nice. That’s wonderful. It’s so neat, that you have such a rich history, in this work. It’s wonderful. So from looking at your website, and then talking with you all, it seems like partnerships, in particular, are really important. You’ve worked with the Lab of Ornithology now, for about 10 years. For about a decade. So how have your partnerships, locally, regionally, internationally, really helped to move you all, forward, in your mission and vision, as an organization?

[Praveen J] Yeah.

[Mittal Gala] Praveen, would you like to answer that?

[Praveen J] Yeah, let me take it. I take it from where Mittal, has left. So Bird Count India as a name, says it’s a collective. So collective of a large number of organizations. And it’s a graded scale. It starts with a large, existing, very old NGOs. For example, the Bombay Natural History Society, The South Asian unit of Wetland International, the Indian unit of World Wide Fund for Nature, WWF, and such big organizations. Still regional organizations, who have got a strong presence in each region, again, for a few decades. And they be doing activities.

And then, there are several small, informal groups, who are very transient, who got formed as WhatsApp groups. But extremely active, extremely passionate, and having clear ambitions. So this is a large group of people whom we are working with. And each of them come with their own ambitions. So Bird Count India’s vision and mission is trying to make sure that– there is some kind of a common goal, but we are trying to cater, to make sure that these ambitions, of each of the groups, are met.

So the BNHS contacts [INAUDIBLE], Bird Count. BNHS contacts Schema account. So how can Bird Count either help businesses achieve their objectives. Wetland International conducts the Asian waterbird census, which has been a citizen science enterprise, much before eBird came in. How could eBird, as a tool, help to move that movement forward? How to make it strengthen, that particular moment. So that’s where the bird community has been, actually, trying to engage. And then use the same network, to make the same initiatives much more stronger, with these kind of partnerships.

And then, there are forest departments. They are the government bodies, who are officially expected to protect the forest. They want to conduct bird surveys in their forest area. So how could you conduct a very focused bird survey, bringing in a lot more people, and conducting the survey in a particular area, which is not small. It’s a biggish area, where, how do you conduct a bird survey. We provide technical expertise and getting that through, and some amount of analysis.

Of course, Cornell, this partnership is brilliant. It’s been going from eBird, started in 2013. We were involved with the first launch of Merlin. A lot of us did a lot of translations. As well as, we rewrote the species accounts, for many of the Indian species there.

We maintained quite a number of accounts, in Birds of The World, for the Indian species. And now, the sound ID is coming up. So the partnership is growing, strength to strength. So that’s been a great partnership for us. We look upon eBird, as the technical and technology partner, who is able to enable all those visions, of thousands of birders and organizations in India, to achieve what they’re actually trying to achieve.

We are also trying to get more at it. We try to do a consultation partnership because we share a lot of habitats with Bhutan, Nepal. So Himalayas is shared. So we have this Himalayan Bird Count. We do have plans to do something for the Sundarbans, which is shared with Bangladesh. We share the coasts and islands with Maldives, Sri Lanka. So we also are trying to do some amount of South Asian parts. Because birds are common, and bird monitoring also has to be transcending these boundaries.

We also was trying an East Asian partnership, this year, with Bunting Count. Hong Kong and Japan has initiated a land birds monitoring. Many of those birds actually winter, in the Eastern part of India. So we are a real good partner to have, to monitor both the breeding and wintering grounds, of the land birds. So it’s been a journey. We have been getting more and more partners, and partners of different scale. And I think that’s probably the strength, which– eBird is a tool, enables to create, and bring more partnership. And bring value to each of those partners, in executing what they would like to [INAUDIBLE].

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Yeah, that’s so beautiful. You stated that so well. I think that you embody, what GBBC is about, too, as an organization. Because it’s really an event, right? And eBird is the tool. And then, if we can try to help people get what they want to, out of it, from any organization around the world, it really has a power to really bring people together for these four days, to see birds. And it sounds like you’re doing that internationally, in your area, too. Which is so inspiring.

And thank you, for all of the work you have done, for Merlin eBird. Because without people in countries, helping us know, what are you seeing, what are you hearing, the tools couldn’t evolve, as fast as they have. So thank you for that effort, you guys have put in there. It’s really neat. So specifically talking about GBBC, again. What was the motivation, for you all, within your organization, to take on this annual event and really make it special? And like, you articulated so beautifully, try and provide it to everybody, and let them kind of tweak it here and there, to make it their own special event that they look forward to. How have you done that, with GBBC?

[Mittal Gala] I’ll take that question, Becca. Yeah. Like I said, the 2013, the first edition of GBBC in India, was popular. And it was quite reassuring to see, that birders like the idea of contributing their sightings on a common platform. And so that excitement, we wanted to try another year. And that was, again, a success, with more participation. So we, ourselves, had fun hosting the events. And it was just Facebook publicity then. And then, the trend caught up, in the subsequent years. And thanks to our partners, and state coordinators, we’ve been able to see more and more participation, in GBBC.

And I think in 2015, we also started our on-campus Bird Count, to monitor the campus bird– the bird diversity in campuses. Because in India, campuses have diverse habitats, and, of course, a lot of people. So birding can be done in groups. And also, events like this can bring teachers and students together, and go on boardwalks. And this can be leveraged, to promote bird monitoring. And so, similarly, what started with GBBC, actually led on to a multitude of interesting events and partnerships.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Wonderful. That’s great. Yeah, we’re going to talk a little bit, about schools here, soon. I’m excited to hear more about, how you have been so successful with that. That’s one place, we’re continuing to try and grow ourselves, too, in the United States and Canada. So India is, obviously, a vast country. Right? Many states, many territories. Over 100 languages, 1,000 dialects. That is impressive.

And it provides its own challenges, right? To reach as many people, as possible. So how have you all, overcome, that challenge? I’m not sure, how many languages, in dialects, each of you speak. Probably, many. But, obviously, language can be a real barrier, right? To being able to get your message out there, and get people on board. So how have you all, overcome that? And what have you done?

[Praveen J] I’ll take the question. Absolutely, Becca. It’s incredibly challenging. The kind of diversity, which we have. The linguistic diversity, which we have here. And when Bird Count India is forming a catalyst role, where the real champions are the people in the field. We have to somehow make sure that their work is lesser. They don’t have to do anything, ground up. What other ways, in which we could support them, so that they create the right amount of material, to make sure that the events, like GBBC, is a grand success. So definitely, scalability is an issue, for anybody working in India.

And if they want to go Pan-India, scalability is an issue. What we have been trying out is that we are trying to create materials, the campaign materials, the helper materials, centrally. And then, have means by which it could be translated or overlaid, on different languages. So we have to be a little more careful, to know, you have to be coherent. You have to know that there are chances, that what we are going to create, has to be easily translated to another of the language.

So English. Yes, there is a spread in English, but it doesn’t reach a large part of the crowd. Hindi is extremely popular in North India. But in South, we are like four or five different languages, here. So we really need to make sure, that we are creating this material, in a way in which it can actually be transmuted, translated, transformed, into regional materials, which can be used.

While in the topic, we also have now, the names of birds translated to like, nine Indian languages, now. So that’s, at least, a barrier crossed. And we are trying to add more in this GBBC. Maybe, two or three more. And we also, recently, launched Merlin into Indian languages, 300 species.

So I don’t think we are there, but we are trying to reach there. This are the journey, through which we are passing, to create as much material relevant for the groups, as birders, in each of the languages. While I talk about eBird and Merlin, we also have a sister group, known as Early Bird, who concentrate more on young children.

They have created smaller pocket guides, physical pocket guides, for about 150 species. And each of the species, Illustrator has got text, in the regional language. And these more pocket guides are hugely popular during GBBC.

Because that’s the time when a lot of young birders, that are new birders, are introduced to the birding, by an educator. And they would like to carry these pocket guides, and distribute them physically. Which is like a smart memento, which, somehow, leaves in, and they get used to it. So the initial hurdle of language is crossed, when we have those regional language field guides, with the small, little illustrations.

And this also helps, in a bit of cross-pollination, of ideas. Because people try different things, with the same Bird Count material. And somebody was extremely successful, with a particular kind of translation, that gets copied into another place. And that amount of sharing and giving is also something which, somehow, through Bird Count India talk, we are able to manage.

So challenge, which is really at the top of our mind, not just for GBBC, for complete penetration of eBird. And making sure that we have a good monitor network, across India, which can actually get us spatial and temporal data, for each of our birds. So on it. We are fully on it. But I don’t think we have reached anywhere, where we can say, yeah, we are comfortable now. It will be a challenge, throughout, for next few years.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Yeah, absolutely. Well said. It is. It’s a challenge that one has to sort of, whittle away at, right? Because it’s very hard to solve it, immediately, and overnight. But it’s great to hear, you’re getting more people on the ground, that can help this happen. We have similar challenges in Mexico, and Central and South America, because, as you can imagine, even if they speak Spanish, what they call their birds in their region, it might be the same species, literally, but they have a different name for it. So it’s a real challenge.

And it’s wonderful to see, you all, embracing it and. The field guides are fabulous. That’s a great idea. That you’re able to help with that process, in different areas. It’s very cool. Very inspiring. So your growth in 2022, was amazing. It was so amazing, everybody on my team, in North America and Canada, we were watching your numbers roll in, and it was like a big sporting event.

Go, go! Look at India. They’re just pushing out. It was so inspiring. You guys increased your eBird checklists by 28%, in just one year, which just blew all of our minds. How did you do this? How did you do it so quickly, and within, seemingly, a short period of time? But as you say, maybe, you were whittling away at it. And this year was just the breakout year. But, yeah, tell us more about your experience. What happened there?

[Mittal Gala] So I take this question. Yes, indeed, 28% is really heartening to see. And we, ourselves, were surprised, when we looked at the results. While it’s a good number to know, we were not just concentrating on the number of lists. But we were trying to see, how that number relates, to the spread of birding in India. So in GBBC, other than bird watchers, going out and documenting birds, we also want bird watchers, just participating. Or maybe, new people get interested in birding. That’s another one of the objectives, that we want to encourage.

So we would like to know, how every region is doing, birding wise. And if the increase in birding is the same, throughout the year. And we take a stock of things, how the spread is. And then, there are two interventions that we do. So places where birding has really picked up, over the years, and doesn’t need much of our involvement, we just play a supporting role. And in supporting role, we have state coordinators.

And we mobilize the state coordinators to encourage– get new people into birding. To encourage the existing birders, to go out and participate in the GBBC and upload that list. And to mobilize the state coordinators. We also want them, to give all the resources, that they can use it, to make the event popular. So I’m going to show you our website. The event page, where we put all these resources. Let me just share my screen. I may need some help, here. Let me know if you can see my screen.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Yep, you’re good. We can see it

[Mittal Gala] OK. I need to maximize this. One sec, I’m just–

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] No problem. Take your time.

[Mittal Gala] Yeah. So this is the event page from last year. And there are multiple tabs. So if I go do this one. Yeah. So for regions where there is good participation, we just play a supporting role. And the support is in the form of this comprehensive event page, which has publicity material.

It has tips, on how to conduct a bird walk or a talk, if you want to give a talk on birds, in schools or colleges. And if you are going to do any of this event, with the objective of getting more people interested in birds, you register your event. And then, all the registered events are shown on a different page.

So anybody wants to know, what is happening in their region, during GBBC, they just have to go through. They just have to filter by their region, and they would know exactly, what is going on. And if they still have any doubts or queries, we have a list of state coordinators.

And then, that state coordinators for their help them to– they answer the queries. Or if they need more resources, they help them, make that resources available to them. And if and only if they need something from us, we would help them out. But at the same time, we are constantly available on WhatsApp group. The entire team of Bird Count India, Praveen, Ashwin, Sohail, me, we are always there, talking to people on WhatsApp groups.

And, yeah, so that’s one thing. And, similarly, is for the campus bird count. Like I said, we, again, have a form, where the campuses can register, and they can list down the walks, that they are going to conduct in their campus. So any student or anyone living close to the campus can contact the partner– let me just show you, this page– can reach out, to the campus coordinators.

And these are the list of campuses. Yeah. So all this happens with a very less intervention from Bird Count India. Because a lot of these regions are well-birded now, and they do it on their own.

And then, the other thing. The regions where the spread is less, where birding is less, bird data is less, birders are very few, we make a conscious effort to reach out, to few serious birders, in those regions. And so we establish the contact.

We start a conversation, through those serious birders, who then, further, get their community of birders, nature enthusiastic, together. And we conduct a webinar for them. Or workshop for them. And then, yeah, again, motivate them. Give whatever resources they need, to popularize events in their region. And then, with these groups, again, we have a communication channel open, through WhatsApp.

Yeah. And then, right from the day of– before the event, and throughout the event, we constantly are in touch, sending screenshots of how different states are putting efforts, in GBBC. And one thing would be nice, is to see the number of birders, participating from each region, which would, again, make them feel– we will get them into a more friendly, competitive spirit, to see how the other birders– how many birders are participating, in the other regions. So, yeah. And I think that’s how we managed to get that 28% increase.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] That is really inspiring. I am taking notes, on this side, because I love that idea, of having people register, either their own group, or their school, or whatever it is. That’s brilliant. I would love to implement something like that, more, on our end. Because then, you can also, more formally, go back, and really be able to figure out, who’s participating where. And like you articulated, be able to target regions where, maybe, you want to increase that or ask them how they did that.

I’m taking notes. I want to do something like that on our end. We don’t have anything like that. So well done. Very interesting. So on the same thread, of expanding participation, we’re always trying to grow our participation in schools and education centers. It sounds like you all, are doing that, too.

And we do this, probably, similarly, to you. We do both formal and formal education centers. So in the US, we have a lot of– in Canada, we have a lot of nature centers, or informal, where people can volunteer to show up and participate. And then, of course, we have lots of schools too.

So it seems like you all have thrived, very successfully, in that region. And, for example, in 2022, Christina Padua– I hope I pronounced that right, but please, correct me if I am wrong– and Panchayat Union Middle School. Is that right? Oh, good.

In Salem, Tamil Nadu India, they had an exponentially phenomenal growth this year. It was so impressive. Students– students, young people, submitted 4,316 eBird checklists, more than 90 species, that it blew all of our minds. We were so impressed. How did you get that to happen? How did you get so many checklists, and get so many people out there, enthusiastic, during that weekend?

[Ganeshwar SV] Yeah, so I’ll take this question. So I, personally, know how much GBBC has progressed, in terms of getting participation because I was among, one of the first birders, to participate in this event. So I personally know it. I have a great connection with GBBC. It was my first bird counting event that I started, in 2014. And still, to this day, it’s been an evergreen memory for me, sighting greater flamingos in Salem. So that was a mind-blowing experience. So GBBC was so close to my heart.

So after that, I started participating in GBBC every year. And between 2014 to ’16, or ’17. So I was literally the only birder in my county. And even across Tamil Nadu, the contributions were only popping up slowly. However, in contrast to that gala, they were uploading a greater number of checklists. So like, if they are able to do it, I should be able to do it. They were like, Kerala is my biggest motivation. And I tried to surpass them, at least, in the individual rankings. Which is a lot of fun.

So Kerala continues to inspire me, heavily. And I just have mad respect, for what they do, in terms of birding, and across various ornithological activities. Also, during this period, I contacted more than 100 outreach and education programs, for schoolchildren and teachers. So especially for this, like Praveen, mentioned, the Early Birds educational materials, especially, those pocket guides, were immensely helpful, to contact GBBC.

The goal of my programs, actually, is not to make the students get into bird listing. But, basically, to enjoy birds, and develop a connection with nature. So the students, after a few months, they just don’t want to watch birds and play games, but they wanted to do something more. So that’s when we introduced the concept of citizen science and listing birds in eBird. So several schools are into using eBird. And Salem Ornithological Foundation helps them to upload their data into eBird, and maintain their accounts, actually. So can I take, a little more time?

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Yes, please. This is fascinating.

[Ganeshwar SV] So in any Panchayat Union Middle School, usually has children from the ages of five to 14. So it’s a government school. So one such school that we have great success working with is, the Panchayat Union Middle School, in Krishna Puram, in Salem. So the credit goes to the school Headmaster, Senthil Kumar, and his wife, Maria Garci, who is also a teacher. So you’ll see both their names in eBird, as Vasant Sully, and Vasni. So their GBBC preparations begin, at least, one month before. Usually, during the Pongal, but pretty much, during this time.

So once, I made an uninformed visit to their school, and the headmaster was actually taking classes on bird identification, for the students. So that was so inspiring, and so heartwarming, to see such an activity. So to encourage interested students, to get them to participate each year, the headmaster gives rewards in the form of new notebooks, pens, color pencils, et cetera, all from his own money.

So every student who participates has an understanding about birds, and why they are into listing birds. They don’t do it, just because the teachers told them to. They do it because they enjoy the activity. And they also know the golden rule of bird-watching, not to record at all is better than erroneous one, which is very crucial, to maintain the data quality in eBird, I suppose.

They don’t have access to binoculars or smartphones, to use eBird, from mobile phones. So every list is based on naked-eye observation. And they are written in notebooks. So after consistent engagement, for the last three, four years, now, more than half of the school students are birdwatchers.

And each student will come up with some 100 checklists, in four days, and each checklist will be of 10 minutes duration. So they continue to inspire us, and they continue to surprise us, in all the ways possible. So the energy that the students bring us, that is what is our fuel, that makes us to work more.

And also, depending on the number of students, and the checklist that we get. So every single checklist goes through a three-layer check. And our biggest task is to upload the information, to eBird because it’s not– we are not talking about just a few lists, but a few thousands of checklists, we are talking about. So till the last day, last minute of checklist submission, five or six of us will be typing the data in Excel. I think, last year, still, we were not able to upload some 400, 500 lists. I don’t think, we did. If we did not upload, that many number of checklists.

So we made it like a celebration in schools. So who just doesn’t want to be a part of, a four-day fun with birds? So students, every year, the participation is increasing exponentially. And the students, by the time January and February comes, students automatically start to ask, when are the GBBC days. So you just don’t have to get them, to like, so this is the date for GBBC. You just don’t have to do that, anymore. The students, themselves, will come and ask, what is the date for GBBC this year.

So this is the bird listing side of the GBBC. And I’d like to share the impact of bird watching, and bird listing, or the event has on the personality of the students. The teachers tell me that after introducing birding, firstly, the students come to school regularly and attend classes. Yeah. So if a student doesn’t come to school, or attend classes regularly, then that particular student will not be taken out for birding, and won’t be given a pocket day.

So to learn something new about birds, and watch them, students are regular to school. And their focus and observation, inside classrooms, have improved, which also gets reflected in their academic scores. And I have a very cute moment that I’d like to share, from last year’s GBBC. So we have a 10-year-old girl, who’s a fantastic birder, and lister. She enjoys doing that. So seeing her do that, her brother, who is a five-year-old, also wanted to do the same.

So we don’t teach children to list, that young. So it is usually for little older children. But even though we dissuaded that kid from not, of course, you enjoy birds. Then, after you grow older, then you can list. So he was totally stubborn, that he wanted to get along with the sister, to do birding and put list in GBBC.

So we did not teach them. We do not teach him. But learning from his sister, he was able to identify 16 species, including the differences between male and female. And I was so fortunate, to witness firsthand when I went birding with them. So that was one of the really lovely moments, from last year’s GBBC, actually.

So since the school is located in a rural area, it is not unusual for children to roam around, and hit birds with catapults and raid nests, during holidays. But those days are long gone. And the hands that used catapults to hit birds, are the same hands that are taking notes of birds and their behaviors. And you can show them, by uploading the information to eBird.

And the students getting inspired, by events like GBBC, and platform like eBird. So they have made their own nest boxes. And they hang them in their school premises. So birds like black-headed starling, Indian robin, yellow-billed babblers, have all nested in several generations of young [INAUDIBLE].

There are so– a very, very happy moment for the students, to see that. To see birds, nesting in nest boxes, that were made by them. And if a student is standing so close to the nest box, for a longer period of time, another student will come and chase them around, asking not to go near nest. So they do understand, how important it is, not to go near the nest when they are incubating, or feeding their young. And so I was very, very fortunate, to witness several heartwarming moments, like this. And working with children is our future, but for all of our future works.

So after the students pass out of the school, they may or they may not continue to be bird watchers, but we certainly do know that the thought of hummingbirds, will never occur in their life again. So and when they grow up to have children of their own, we can hope that they’ll teach their kids to enjoy nature, and not to destroy it. So as you can see, from the brief gist, I gave you, about the GBBC, that we do in Salem.

So it’s not just about birds and bird listing in eBird, for us. It’s just so much more than that. And we see Citizen Science, and events like GBBC, as a tool and a culture, through which personality developments and good habits are cultivated, at a very young age. And memories are made for a lifetime.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Wow. Well, I want to give you a standing ovation. That was so beautiful. The enthusiasm with which you talk about this, I can only imagine, how much you’re imparting that infusing enthusiasm, onto so many others. It sounds like, as young as five, maybe even younger.

And one of the themes that I heard from you, that I also truly believe, GBBC is important in developing, is just love of birds. Counting is great. Listing’s great. But that’s not what this is about, right? This is about loving the birds, sharing that joy with other people, getting curious. Right?

This is can sometimes be the beginning of the science mind. Or not even the beginning, right? We’re born as scientists. But it cultivates the science mind and makes us more curious about what’s going on around us. So hats off, to the work that you’re doing with so many people, in your region. I just learned a lot. That was fabulous. Thank you. And building–

[Ganeshwar SV] Thank you. The credit goes to all birders from Salem.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Tell them, we’re very proud of them. It’s very inspiring. So building on that, you gave us tons of secrets and ideas, for how you are doing this. Is there anything else that you all, want to share? Things that we can learn from, right? There are so many places around the world, that are trying to do what you all, are doing. Including us, here, in the United States, where we continue to try and grow, and become creative. So how else are you– what are your little secrets to success, that you guys are finding, working really well, for you?

[Praveen J] Yeah, let me take this. Yeah. Success is relative, no? Because for a country of size, one billion, yeah, I don’t know where we are, but it’s always good to know that we have grown 28%. So there is no silver bullet, I would say. Every group works differently. Then Ganeshwar has given his thoughts, and what are his intentions, what are the reasons why the school succeeded. It may not be the same thing, for another school. It could be completely different.

I remember, after COVID, there is a college, who took up GBBC as the event of the College Union. So college Union is something, which students elect a body, and the Student Union need to have activities. They thought that global, even, like GBBC, could be a great event, for the college. So the motivations for different groups are quite different. But it looks like there are some common factors. For example, a little bit of attention always helps.

It’s basically, you have a regional school, or you have a school in a small town. And then you get a national wide attention. And that’s something which is really valuable for any institution, that we in. Any teacher, or a group of students, who are conducting it, feel that. To get recognized at a national level, and at international level, sometimes. Right?

For example, like Mittal showed, all the schools and institutions, which are participating in the campus, but couldn’t list it there. You can actually see, we’re all getting participated. That actually, also, creates a sense of pride in the people, who are actually participating. Or on top of the same objectives, which they are trying to achieve. And feeling a good feeling that, OK, I’m doing something, which is being recognized by a lot of people.

And a little bit of competition, like what Mittal, mentioned, right? That’s also helps, in the sense that, you feel that, hey, that particular school is doing it more. Why more? Why can’t we also do it? It’s something which is– it’s so easy. It’s so fun. And then, why are we not doing it? And that question comes up– it must come up in, every teacher’s and principal’s mind, right? Why are we not doing GBBC? It’s such a fun an event. And I think that’s also helping.

Like, Ganeshwar, already mentioned. You was looking at a different state, and trying to see, why couldn’t we also do it. Right? So that happens at a level of schools, and districts, and counties, everywhere. This is also happening here. I think that’s another factor, which is all transparent because all the tools of eBird, are right on your face.

And you can actually track these things. You can look at different hotspots. You can see, which school is doing good, which school is doing great, in terms of participation. So there probably are better ways, in which the tool could be designed. For example, there are no ways in which I could find, how many birders were actually birding, quickly.

So even that, participation is like a big key for individual in campus Bird Count. Rather than, it’s like a recruitment event, where you pull in a lot more people, then you enjoy the fun, togetherness. Like a jamboree, where everybody participate. Right? So that kind of statistics, which we, actually, last time, also, we were publishing that. How many birders participated. So that also creates this kind of energy.

And utility is enormous. I mean, we have a lot to learn. And they will pull things from you. You don’t really have to push anything, on them. So that’s another part, which, also, worked in favor of this particular event. Another part, which we also are conscious about, is the diversity factor in India, and the inclusiveness, which we have to be cognizant about.

There would be groups, societies, which are not completely plugged into this particular event. There may be hurdles, linguistic, or anything, some other hurdles which need to be crossed. And we are on the constant lookout, for those kind of dark spots, where we could make a difference by engaging with them, and helping them join that particular segment. And brings in a lot of positive energy, when that kind of diversity comes together.

And lastly, to say, though, that not everybody is a scientist. Some people are really interested to know, what happened to that data, which you contribute. Or like, has something come out of it.

So what could India do? Encourage people to download it from eBird. Do some analysis. Do some good science, and see whether that can actually benefit conservation. So there is this thoughtful process. It’s not just fun. It’s not just a smart competition, which you’re participating in. It’s something good, which you are doing for the conservation of birds. Something which we’re doing, to understand our birds better.

And that also creates some kind of a fever in people, that, yes, I’m not just doing it for the purpose of participating in the event. But, finally, my small output is contributing to that larger knowledge, which is this farming, which is, again, right in front of your face, in certain cases. Like the maps, which are where you can see all your observations.

But some of those outputs, which are coming as science outputs. And the papers, which are actually coming out. We try to promote, again, through Bird Count India. Or when those kind of papers come out, like, this is the analysis that has come out of it. Thanks to all the data, which you have contributed. So I think it’s like a flywheel. Right? You have more data, you get more analysis, and then that brings more attention. And that actually brings in more participation, next. So we have to just work with that particular flywheel, and make it run faster.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] That’s great. That’s great. Thank you, for bringing us back, to the importance of this event. Not only is it fun, and it changes lots of people’s lives, from a very young age, but it is real data that that’s being used. And, I think, last I looked, in 2022, eBird data was used in 159 scientific publications. So that always blows my mind. Each year, more and more scientists are downloading this data. Whether they’re publishing scientific journal articles, or just doing like an in-class analysis with that data. It’s real data. It’s real things that we can look at, and learn. So I agree.

There are certain people, who participate because that is really inspiring, to them, right? That they can actually contribute to a scientific process, by going out and recording the birds, that they see. So thank you. And it looks like– did you want to talk a little bit, about eBird India? It looks like– is there anything you wanted to say, about that?

[Ganeshwar SV] Yeah. That’s, again, a product of a partnership that we have, at the India portal, where we could actually showcase our stories. And these kind of stories, which come out of scientific outputs, are either going to Bird Count India, or it will go to eBird India. So people, at least, here, have got used to logging into the India portal, to see the India stories. And then, also see the statistics, which are relevant for India. So that portal which has been enabled from Cornell, has been greatly helping, in this particular process.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Nice.

[Praveen J] And thanks, Mittal, for reminding.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Yeah, that’s wonderful. That’s great. Yeah, I like that piece too. eBird can be something you really have to learn, how to use. But the data is there. And organizations, whether it’s a nonprofit, or a school, or a country, or a state, or a territory, can actually pull that data, and really look at it, very fine-focused too, for their area. If they want to. And that’s the power, right? You can take it, where you want to. Can use the data, to suit the needs that you’re interested in understanding, and looking at.

So great. Good news. So I’m very excited to hear. Do you all, have special plans for this year, based on the past? Or things that you’re trying, new or different, that you’re really looking forward to seeing, how it goes this year, with the GBBC? But you can throw in things, that might be different for each of you, because you’re all working on slightly different–

[Mittal Gala] OK. So, yeah. Praveen, do add if I missed out something. Becca, let me tell you what we did, last year. So we looked at the results of last year’s GBBC, and then we categorized the regions, which was– no. I think we looked at the 2021 results, of the GBBC. And we then looked at the regions, which were– where there was 0 to no participation, or zero to less participation. And then we wanted to target those areas, and find a way, on how we can get some kind of participation in those regions.

So then, as I said, in my previous conversation, that we try to find certain serious birders in those regions, and then do workshops, and things like that, with them. And because of that, the 2022 had a 28% increase. Because we targeted those regions, and the birders in those areas. Now, we also didn’t want to stop at that. So the regions, which showed even a small percentage of participation, we wanted to interact with them, in person. So then, last year, after the GBBC got over, during the summer and summer monsoon, a few members from the Bird Count India did a roadshow.

Which means, they actually were on road, for almost a month, visiting different counties, and interacting with those few birders. Going on bird walks with them, doing presentations in schools, or in their nature club, or for a group of birders. So, yeah. So a new relationship, a new kind of connection, started after our interactions. After we came back, the interactions continued over phone conversations. And, again, WhatsApp group. And then, that led to, again, regional events, which they started. And they took it up, on their own.

And then, we also hired a coordinator– project coordinator, just targeting those regions. And, again, the project coordinator would conduct workshops, and get people interested in birding, get them interested in using Merlin or eBird. Or just, watching birds. So we have a similar strategy, this year, also. We want to, again, have a very similar plan. Conduct webinars for them. Reach out to them. And. yeah, I think that’s it. I don’t know, Praveen, if I missed anything.

[Praveen J] Yeah. So I think we covered most of it. So GBBC is like a recruitment event, even for us. So we try out a new region, and see how things grow. And can we make a few connections, show the research, and then, have a lot more meaningful engagement through the year. The other part, which we are trying to do is, we are trying to– right now, we have reached a stage, where things have to, now, move, to a more support mode. Like, the people in the states are to pick it up. And they are to actually use us, as a backup, to make sure that their events, get successful.

So we are to create some kind of a playbook, for this people. So that they are able to run it, with less of intervention from our side, and they can actually customize it, in a way, they really want it. So that’s another thought, which is going through. And we are trying to get to something like that. So that we create those resources, hand it over to people, who are able to pick it up, and then run with it, in the local regions.

I think that actually creates the scale, so that they are more closer to their audiences. And they know, exactly, the peculiarities, which are there. And with some amount of support from us, if they are able to make the difference. And that should be enabled. And they are the real champions. We are discussing this. So I think that’s what we are trying, with a lot of states, this year, so that they could be at the forefront. And we are, actually, in a supporting group.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Nice. Ganeshwar, is there anything you’re looking forward to, with your community?

[Ganeshwar SV] Yeah, absolutely. So not just in Salem. I’m looking to coordinate people across Tamil Nadu, to contribute more this year because I do know that Kerala, will definitely surpass Tamil Nadu, this year. Because I have been tracking the number of check lists, of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, each year. So like, in 2002– [LAUGHS] So in 2021, there were like 6,000 plus checklists.

And we were like– Tamil Nadu were like, 10,000 plus. So last year, 2022, there was a massive increase by Kerala, by some 3,000 checklists. So in 2022, Kerala came closer to some 9,000 checklists. And we were still on 10,000. So I am pretty sure that this year, Kerala will be enjoying this very fun, healthy competition, that I personally really look forward to. So they are like our biggest motivation and inspiration.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Absolutely. I can– oh, go ahead.

[Praveen J] Yeah, if you want. If I could add. Last year, Kerala has developed a small app, which you can look at and see, who else is birding in the last seven days. So they can identify which places are not being visited. So that they will plan those visits, to make sure that, OK, somebody [INAUDIBLE]. I think that now, the app is available internationally. It has been used in other countries also. So, yeah, I think that’s probably why Ganeshwar, Kerala, was doing well, because they were all using that app, to find out where to bird.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] That is fun. I want to know, what that app is. You’ll have to send me that link, because that sounds like a lot of fun. Especially, if you can use it anywhere, because that would be– that’d be so fun, to be able to incorporate that piece. I mean, I know eBird has a way to do that, but it’s hard to find. So if there was something that was really clean and clear, that you could just log into and use, that would be a lot of fun. Well, I love the friendlies. Yeah. What is it called?

[Praveen J] It’s a optical checklist, but targeted for GBBC.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] OK.

[Praveen J] It can only give you last seven days of information. So it’s actually meant for small events.

[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] That’s really neat. We need to connect about that. I’m really fascinated by that. This has been so fun. I love the friendly competition that you all are playing with, here, a little bit too, with your different regions and areas. So what an honor, to be able to learn from you. I seriously, I took a lot of notes about the ways that we can improve, and do this more creatively on our end.

So thank you so much, to Mittal, and Praveen, and Ganeshwar, for giving us some of your time today. And sharing with us, your wisdom. It’s going to be another wonderful GBBC count year. I can already tell. And we hope, everybody who’s tuning in and listening, wherever you are in the world, that you will go out and bird, during the GBBC. And happy birding, to everybody. Thank you, again, for everybody, for being here.

[Mittal Gala] Thank you.

[Praveen J] Thank you.

[Mittal Gala] Thank you, Becca. Thank you, Ganeshwar, and Praveen.

[Ganeshwar SV] Thank you. Happy birding.

[Mittal Gala] Thank you. Happy birding. And happy GBBC.

End of transcript

Bird Count India is a large partnership-based organization which advances people’s interest in birds while supporting bird conservation efforts. We sat down with Bird Count India representatives to learn how they have used the annual Great Backyard Bird Count to grow participation around the country. Join us to hear inspiring stories of how to motivate audiences to watch, learn about and count birds.