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Counting Birds to Save Gorillas: How Citizen Scientists Protect Gorilla Habitat

Gorillas will always be nearest to our hearts, of course, but every year on Global Big Day, we turn our attention to some other important forest creatures: birds.

Global Big Day is a worldwide bird counting program sponsored by The Cornell Lab each year in May to count numbers and types of birds found across the globe. Because the presence of birds is an important indicator of health for the Congo Basin rainforests where mountain gorillas and Grauer’s gorillas live, the Fossey Fund’s biodiversity research focuses on birds and we participate in this global count every year.

Students in the DRC in search of birds in the rainforest.

This year, our scientists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo invited children from the Club des Amis de la Nature to join us. We talked to them about the importance of birds in the gorilla habitat and showed them how to use binoculars before setting off in search of birds. It’s never easy to spot birds in a rainforest, but right away we found a few sunbirds, which help plants reproduce by feeding on their nectar. We also identified 10 other bird species: a hamerkop, a lizard buzzard, an African cuckoo hawk, the African pied hornbill, a long-tailed hornbill, several African grey parrots, a black-and-white mannikin, the common bulbul, a yellow-billed kite and the swamp palm bulbul. The students — and our scientists — had a great time exploring the rainforest and learning about the wide variety of birds that make their homes in this biodiverse habitat.

Students spotted this African pied hornbill in the Nkuba Conservation Area.

Meanwhile, in Rwanda, students from 10 local secondary schools joined our team of researchers and staff to count birds near their schools as part of our “citizen science” programming. Together, these groups in Rwanda recorded 101 separate species of birds!

Projects like Global Big Day are important because they allow us to involve ordinary people — citizen scientists — in our scientific research. When students and other community members take part in events like this, they take pride in the fact that they are helping to expand what is known about the critical and biodiverse habitat that surrounds their own communities.

The African sunbird’s feeding habits encourage plant growth.

Global Big Day is just one piece of this education puzzle. We work year-round with secondary school teachers and students to develop conservation education programming that teaches the importance of gorillas. We run Nature Clubs that allow students to develop their own projects, such as tree planting and community gardens, that help their local communities thrive while reducing pressures on the nearby forests. We invite university students to our Karisoke Research Center to conduct research alongside our scientists.

All of these citizen science programs fit well with three of the four Fossey Fund pillars: conducting critical science to develop conservation strategies, training future leaders to address the conservation challenges of tomorrow, and helping communities through livelihood, food security and education initiatives. And of course, like everything we do, they uphold our primary pillar and the reason the Fossey Fund exists: Saving gorillas.

This yellow-crowned canary was spotted by our citizen scientists in Musanze, Rwanda, on Global Big Day.
The hadada ibis has a distinctive call and a large range that includes the area near Karisoke Research Center.