Creating A "Social Field Guide"

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Here is the BirdFellow species account for American Robin.

From the beginning, the vision for BirdFellow.com has focused on fostering collaborative efforts. We recognize that unique possibilities arise when a community comes together in pursuit of a common goal. With such possibilities in mind, we've designed a framework that will allow all of us to work together in producing the first "social field guide." (watch video)

Traditionally, field guides were the work of a single author/illustrator or a group of authors and illustrators. Roger Tory Peterson and David Sibley are the best-known examples of the former, while the National Geographic Guide series is the most popular multi-author effort covering North American avifauna.

Guides published more recently have begun to use photos or photo composites to support the text that describes each species. Though this format was introduced by the National Audubon Society in the 1970's, it took the advent of digital photography to facilitate the proliferation of photo guides.

Over the past decade or so, several new photographic guides have come on the scene. These include works by Kenn Kaufman, Don and Lillian Stokes, Ted Floyd (Smithsonian) and Ned Brinkley (National Wildlife Federation). The most recent addition to the printed field guide landscape is Richard Crossley's somewhat unique Crossley ID Guide, which features Photoshopped composites of each species perched, in flight, and from various distances. While each of the guides mentioned above has merit, it could be argued that their text, illustrations, and photo selections are the reflection of what each author or group of authors thinks is important. It would appear, based on the fact that three new guides (Brinkley, Floyd, and Crossley) have come on the market since 2007, that we are still waiting for the be all end all field guide.

The time has come to tap into and harness our collective knowledge and create the field guide that no single author or small group of authors can produce. The term that describes this process is "crowdsourcing." Using the online platform that BirdFellow has created, any member of the birding community can make meaningful contributions to our base of knowledge about birds. Perhaps it's an ID tip, or an interesting behavior that you've observed. Maybe you have a photo of a bird in a strange transitional plumage that stumped you in the field. The BirdFellow Social Field Guide provides a forum and respository where these can be shared and used by other birders.

Despite hundreds of years of combined field experience and indisputable skills, the authors of the field guides listed above cannot possibly match the collective knowledge of the greater community of birders in North America and beyond. We at BirdFellow invite you to join us in writing and illustrating the first social bird guide. We've created basic accounts that include descriptive text, range maps (by Paul Lehman) and photo galleries for all of the 960+ species that have been recorded in the ABA (American Birding Association) Area.

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By clicking on "Identification Photos" you can view a collection of images that show both sexes, various ages, and the range of plumage variation that each species typically exhibits. If you click on "Community Images" you can see the photos of the species that other members have shared.

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By adding "Field Notes," members of the BirdFellow community have the chance to help shape a bird guide that meets their needs. If enough others in the community find value in your note, it will be incorporated into the main body of the species account and you will be properly credited for your contribution.

By design, we've limited our initial text. We harbor no illusions of being the ultimate authority, rather we feel that users and not a few select authors should be the ones who guide the development of our content. By "adding a note" near the bottom of one of our species account pages, you can help create the field guide of your dreams. If you have photos of birds or birds in specific plumage that do not appear in our galleries, we encourage you to submit them for inclusion in our guide. 

While the Internet provides us with an egalitarian and inexpensive way to share ideas and test our hypotheses among peers, it remains a bit of  a “Wild West” arena. Creating organization out of chaos and separating the wheat from the chaff requires some degree of community oversight. In addition to the existing firewalls which separate the BirdFellow content from “community” content, we have mechanisms in place that allow community members to offer feedback and rate the value of new ideas. We also intend to develop a network of curators from within the community. Curators will be selected on the basis of expertise in one of several areas. In addition to reviewing existing content, they will be charged with helping aggregate and originate new content. This filtering system will allow us to distill out information of real value and keep our base content from becoming a dumping ground of non-vetted factoids.

Check out the BirdFellow Field Guide and get started by making your first contribution today.

Editor's Note: This is the first in two-part discussion focused on helping birders understand how they can become part of this process. In our next installment, we'll explore some of the obvious questions and discuss how we go about engaging our community in behaviors that up to now are foreign.

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