Courter's Hummingbird Research Receives National Publicity

By Meredith Sell Published: Mar 09, 2013

The Ruby Throated Hummingbird

Research on hummingbird migration patterns performed by Taylor University alumnus and Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Science Jason Courter has received national publicity by the Associated Press.

Courter began his research in 2010 and finished his dissertation July 2012. The Auk, a research journal put out by The American Ornithologists' Union, published the dissertation in its 130th volume.

The research, conducted for Courter's dissertation as part of his doctoral requirements at Clemson University, centered on the northern migrations of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Comparing dates of Ruby-throat Spring sightings from 2001-2010 to sighting dates from 1880-1969, Courter found that in the past decade Ruby-throats arrived in North America 12 to 18 days earlier than in the late 60s.

Last week, the Associated Press interviewed Courter and his advisor about the findings. The story was carried by The Washington Post, U.S. News and World Report, The Guardian, MSN, ABC and Yahoo! News, among others.

Courter's research utilized data compiled by ordinary people, not scientists. “I heard about this emerging discipline called citizen science, where … people with smartphones and Internet access can quickly record information about the birds that they see,” Courter said. “You might have a sample size of 40,000 observations instead of just 400.”

The technological aspect was new, but citizen science was active before the Internet: from 1880 to 1970, a government-sponsored program in the US encouraged citizens to document the first time they saw a bird, and send the information on 3-by-5 cards to Washington, D.C..

“Nearly six million first-arrival cards were sent there and recorded and have survived in a filing cabinet,” Courter said.

Courter used the first-arrival cards and data from current citizen science groups, Journey North and, for his dissertation and made maps comparing the first arrival dates that show the Ruby-throat migration advancement.

“It would have been completely impossible without all the contributions of the citizen volunteers and the general public,” Courter said. “I think it was really unique how the government, the public and scientists worked together.”