Citizen science: an answer for bird conservation in urban China?

By Shiyao Zhong

On 15-17 Jan 2016, an International Black-faced Spoonbill Census was conducted in various locations in East and Southeast Asia. I participated to one of the counting sessions in Shenzhen Bay (Southern China), which is one of the hotspots to see these gorgeous birds. The good news is the global population of Black-faced Spoonbill has raised to 3,356, which is remarkable considering there were only 500 left in the wild 16 years ago [1]. Despite the important findings, one thing that I am particularly interested about this census is the role of the citizen in bird monitoring.

Black-faced spoonbill, source: WWF Hong Kong [2].

The Black-faced Spoonbill census is not the only bird monitoring project that benefits from citizen participation. China Coastal Waterbird Census, a monthly survey covering 13 coastal intertidal wetlands along the east coast, has been conducted for over 10 years involving more than 150 volunteers [3]. These projects are important as the east-southeast of China composes part of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway [4], which is one of the great migration paths for migratory birds. However, it happens that massive land reclamation and intensive urbanization has been continuous in the area for decades [5].

Landsat images: Bohai Bay, China, 1992 (L) and 2012 (R). Source: Daily mail Australia [6].

Landsat images: Shenzhen, China, 1998 (L) and 2008 (R). Source: Daily mail Australia [6].

So, how can citizen science projects benefit the bird conservation?

Think about the temporal and spatial scale of a bird conservation project like China Coastal Waterbird Census, an intensive human resource is needed. The knowledge of bird identification and ecological survey methods is not likely to be trained in short-term, therefore citizens that have the knowledge and experience, and more importantly, actively participate in the project is crucial. In many main cities, bird societies organized by citizens are closely connected to conservation NGOs and experts. They provide training to their members, organize bird watching events and even public education programmes. Citizen science is not only helping the bird monitoring, it is also promoting the science communication and public education on the environmental issues.

Not limiting to specific projects, the detecting scale of citizen science is even wider. For example, with limiting resources, bird monitoring projects generally only include sensitive or indicator species and restricted area. Moreover, thanks to the new technology, e-bird guides, and bird mapping apps (e.g. eBird) [7] have been developed. These applications are powerful tools for data collection, individuals can easily access to bird guides and GPS locators. The observation information (species, abundance, and location) is connected to a regional or even global database, which is valuable for bird conservation. The citizens can also help to keep an eye on illegal activities that are harmful to habitats and birds.

In long term, the rise of public awareness on bird protection may change the way that we construct the urban area. In recent years, the area of green space and artificial wetlands in the urban area is increasing [8]. Does this mean there is a bright future for birds conservation? Let’s not forget the major cause of the decline of bird population and biodiversity in China- habitats loss. Citizen science could be helpful, but stopping the habitat loss is the key.


  1. Yat-tung Yu, 2016, Result of the International Black-faced Spoonbill Census 2016, EAAFP web:
  2. Black-faced Spoonbill, WWF, website:
  3. Ed Parnell, 2016, Decade-long Citizen Science project counts China’s waterbirds, Birdlife International, Asia web:
  4. Department of the Environment and Energy, Australia Government, 2008, Migratory Shorebirds of the East Asian – Australasian Flyway: Population estimates and internationally important sites, web:
  5. Schneider, A., Mertes, C.M., Tatem, A.J., Tan, B., Sulla-Menashe, D., Graves, S.J., Patel, N.N., Horton, J.A., Gaughan, A.E., Rollo, J.T. and Schelly, I.H., 2015. A new urban landscape in East-Southeast Asia, 2000–2010. Environmental Research Letters10(3), p.034002.
  6. Phil Vinter, 2012, the changing face of Earth: Dramatic high-resolution satellite images show how the world has been transformed over the last four decades, Daily mail web:
  7. eBird, China, website:
  8. Zhou, X. and Parves Rana, M., 2012. Social benefits of urban green space: A conceptual framework of valuation and accessibility measurements. Management of Environmental Quality: An International Journal23(2), pp.173-189.




About Biodiversity Conservation Blog

I am an Associate Professor at The Australian National University and convene a (very awesome) course called Biodiversity Conservation. Myself and students in the course contribute to this blog.
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2 Responses to Citizen science: an answer for bird conservation in urban China?

  1. It’s great to hear about conservation projects from other parts of the world Shiyao. Phil

  2. ContemporaryConservationist says:

    Great read. I love seeing citizen science used in communities beyond my own

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