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These Retirees Enjoy Long Walks on the Beach in Search of Dead Birds

A Harlequin duck, one of the species COASST monitors. (Photo: Peter Massas/Wikipedia)

“We have over 1000 dead birds to our credit,” says Diane Bilderback. “We’re working on our second 1000,” adds her husband Dave.

The Bilderbacks, retirees who live on the Oregon Coast, are no bird murderers. They are members of the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, or COASST, a project of the University of Washington aimed at monitoring the health and utilization of marine resources via washed-up bird carcasses.

Every month, COASST sends a coalition of volunteers to beaches all along the west coast to search for dead birds. Rain or shine, the volunteers arm themselves with field guides and sensible shoes and patrol their assigned sites, from Mendocino, California to just shy of the Arctic Circle in Alaska. When they come across a dead bird, they tally its characteristics. This valuable ecological information is then transmitted to the COASST headquarters in Seattle, where the data is analyzed and disseminated to enable diverse research initiatives at universities and organizations across the States.

The 800-strong group of volunteers is predominantly made up of retired folks, who receive training during weekend-long seminars with ecologists and conservationists. While the age of participants ranges from 10 to 93 years old, the mean skews towards the older end of the spectrum.

The idea to form this civilian initiative of dead bird data collection down the west coast is the brainchild of Dr. Julia Parrish, a professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. Using dead birds washed ashore to glean valuable bits of ecological information is not a new concept. Like ancient Roman augurs, for years scientists have interpreted beached bird patterns to gain insight into the effects of fishing industries on bird colony populations or ocean circulation characteristics. But COASST is the largest citizen science effort of its kind.

A black-footed albatross in its nesting ground of Hawaii. It flies to the West Coast to feed.

A black-footed albatross in its nesting ground of Hawaii. It flies to the West Coast to feed. (Photo: Forest and Kim Starr/Flickr)

In the beginning, Parrish would never have imagined the geographical and scientific breadth her program would one day grow to cover. Instead, she was focused on her own study site, Tatoosh Island in the northwestern Olympic Peninsula of Washington State.

“I was just trying to solve what for me was a local problem,” says Parrish. “I was trying to understand whether the patterns in one [bird] colony were particular or idiosyncratic.”. Dr. Parrish was interested in changes in migration patterns and mortality rates among bird populations. Her goal was to find out if these changes were due to human impacts, oil spills, or overfishing.

In order to test her hypotheses about dynamics in bird ecology, she needed a robust baseline against which to compare her observations, and to build this baseline she needed a prodigious amount of bird data.

Continuing with her work alone was futile, but the ever looming dearth of science funding prevented hiring professional birders to her cause. At some point during an excursion to Tatoosh Island, the idea struck her to recruit volunteers to assist with data collection.

A kink in that plan was that studying live birds through binoculars is challenging for even the most seasoned of birders. Dead birds though? Each carcass is a treasure trove of data. And they don’t move nearly as much as the live ones.

Tatoosh Island, one of COASST's volunteer sites

Tatoosh Island. (Photo: wablair/Flickr)

Over the last 20 years, Parrish has built a community of hobbyist researchers like the Bilderbacks, who retired to the Oregon Coast in 2003. Inspired by the natural beauty that suddenly ensconced them, they set out to learn as much as possible about their new environment. They routinely walked local beaches, and decided to patrol for COASST in 2007.

“We only do it once a month for the actual survey, says Diane. “But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t looking. We’re always looking at what the dead bird situation is out here.”

The Bilderbacks became passionate about the science they enable. They proudly recount tales of being the first to document changes in the eating behavior of Western Gulls, or the massive wreck of common murres they tagged in seven hours flat. “It was dirty,” says Dave. “Really really dirty. But it was great.”

A pelagic cormorant, which frequently appears on COASST's most beached birds list.

A pelagic cormorant, which frequently appears on COASST’s most beached birds list. (Photo: Roy W. Low/FWS/Flickr)

COASST observations by volunteers like the Bilderbacks are used to monitor widespread issues like avian influenza and fluctuations in endangered species. The data have even been used by anthropologists curious about whether non-indigenous bird bones in archaeological sites are more likely washed ashore from afar, or an indication of the ancient invention of ocean-going kayaks.

“We are scientists!” Diane says. “When the oil spill occurred in the Gulf—there was no organization that could say, ‘The number of birds that appeared was X.’” Because of COASST, similar events can be accurately monitored and more efficiently mitigated. “You have to have a baseline, otherwise you have no science,” Diane says.

At the heart of it, though, it’s hard to divest COASST of the citizen side of citizen science. For those involved, it provides an opportunity to spend time with friends and family, to build a deeper connection with the natural environment, and to get up close and personal with critters typically viewed only from afar—even if it’s just their carcasses.

“It’s a little bit weird to call it social,” Dr. Parrish says about the camaraderie sparked by scouring beaches for dead birds. Nevertheless, as the program grows, so too does the number of husband-and-wife teams, mothers and daughters, and sometimes three generations of a family, together reveling in the sun, the brackish sea breeze, and the bird corpses.