BUFFALO, N.Y. — A Breeding Bird Atlas is a comprehensive method of compiling data on avian populations. The very first atlas was published in England in 1970, and the first New York atlas began in 1980, being published in 1988. A new atlas is completed every twenty years. The third New York atlas began in January.

"They're really looking for the diversity, how many different species visit and/or breed in New York State, and abundance," said Jerry Thurn, methods committee member for the atlas. "Can we in any way figure out how many breed, in which areas of the state."

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Each atlas is an enormous undertaking. The process involves flocks of volunteers that observe assigned blocks of territory. Sue Barth, a regional coordinator for the atlas says that the entire project will go on for five years. 

"The Breeding Bird Atlas folks have made a grid out of New York State, and these are three by three mile blocks where people are going to pay attention to those boundaries, bird within a block, they're going to commit to being the principal atlaser for that block," Barth said.

The method of data collection has changed somewhat for the new census. In the past, all observations were written down and mailed in. The digital age has made the method of collection is much easier.

"They're going to submit their observations to eBird.org, which is a huge data repository," Barth said. "Matter of fact, over a hundred million bird sightings get submitted annually by bird watchers throughout the entire world."

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The massive amount of data gathered over decades tells researchers much more than just information on birds. Thurn says it's also a reflection of the environment itself.

"We're learning a lot," Thurn said. "The birds are actually telling us what's happening in the forests and the fields as a result of  climate change as well as ecological changes to the habitat."

This year's atlas is in it's fledgling stage, and volunteers are needed. Training and information classes are in the planning stages at a number of locations in Western New York.

"We spoke with the director of the Beaver Meadow Audubon Center, the Reinstein Woods Nature Preserve and Tifft Nature Preserve," Thurn said. "We would welcome the public to come out to any of these three locations when they are advertised, and available and sit down and learn about the Breeding Bird Atlas, and see how much fun they can have being out there. It's a great project for everyone."

For more information on the atlas click here.

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