Smart Phones for Science: Helping Track Hummingbirds and the Effects of Climate Change

Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selaphorus platycercus) photo by Kati Fleming
Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selaphorus platycercus) photo by Kati Fleming

Admit it.  You spend too much time messing around on that addictive little toy – your smart phone. Now you can use your phone to do something more productive than checking Facebook or playing Angry Birds. The good folks at Audubon have created a new citizen science project that lets you use your device to collect data that is vital for the conservation of hummingbirds.


Hummingbirds are nature’s little dynamos.  Weighing tiny fractions of an ounce they beat their wings up to 80 times per second allowing them to hover, fly backwards and travel great distances – some species migrate thousands of miles.  All of this zipping about requires frequent refueling with hummingbird’s rocket fuel of choice – nectar.  Hummingbirds’ metabolism is so fast that if they miss a feeding by just a few hours they can die.  The tiny birds must time their migrations carefully.  Arriving in the North before nectar-bearing flowers are blooming, and food is available, could prove fatal.  It is believed that hummingbirds use photo-period or day-length cues to time their migration.  When the days get longer in the spring, they know that northern flowers should be blooming and it is time to start heading to the breeding grounds.


But climate change threatens to “un-sync” the correlation between day-length and the blooming of nectar producing flowers. For instance, warmer temperatures could cause nectar-bearing plants to bloom early.  By the time the hummingbirds (who have scheduled their travel based on day-length) arrive, the flowers may have gone to seed leaving the birds hungry.  Audubon’s “Hummingbirds at Home” project aims to collect data on the timing of hummingbird arrival and the blooming of nectar-bearing flowers all over North America.  Not too long ago, you would need several tools to collect to this kind of survey: a GPS device, a timer and some way to record your data.  But these days many of us are carrying all of those tools around in our pocket everyday in the form of a smart phone.  Throw in a pair of binoculars and you are good to go.  Audubon has even created a nifty app for iPhones and Android phones that makes it easy to do your survey with the correct protocol.  Or, if you are a smart phone ascetic, you can enter your data on a computer. Plus, you can view everyone else’s data on a cool Google map.  Check out the program and download the app here:


Here in Western Colorado the flowers are JUST starting to bloom, and I have my hummingbird feeder out.  I am planning on doing my first hummingbird survey tomorrow.  After all, the absence of nectar-bearling flowers or hummingbirds is an important data point too.  If anyone else out there is participating in this project I would love to hear about your experiences with it.  Now get outside and get some data!

Smart Phones for Science: Helping Track Hummingbirds and the Effects of Climate Change

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