Audubon in Action: Creative Approaches to Data

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Audubon in Action: Creative Approaches to Data

The decline of bird populations, down by 30% over the last 50 years, is a strong indicator of devastating ecosystem changes. Birds are essential for environmental health, providing  pest control, pollination, and seed propagation. How can we communicate the importance of birds using creative approaches to data? For Earth Day 2022, I developed AUDUBON IN ACTION for a creative data workshop. Using high-resolution images of Audubon's plates, crowdsourced observation data from iNaturalist, and crowdsourced audio from xeno-canto, I tried to consider other creative means for the depiction of wildlife data.

Plate 131 of the American Robin
Courtesy of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Montgomery County Audubon Collection, and Zebra Publishing.

John James Audubon's The Birds of America, initially published appeared in 87 parts over a twelve-year period (1827-38), is considered to be the archetype of wildlife illustration. Penn Libraries was gifted a six-volume set by Edwin H. Vare, Jr. in the 1950s.  As one of the only visual records ornithologists have today of the bird species that inhabited the United States during that time, Audubon's magnum opus serves as a key source in the history of American wildlife. However, it's widely regarded today as an artistic, rather than scientific, endeavor, though the work transcends both.  His plates are not always accurate - some are not distinct species but younger versions of others; some feature ornithological discrepancies in favor of artistic license; still others have not been sighted since Audubon's depictions.


Photo of American Robin, seated on small branches beside berries
Observation of American Robin by tderaedt

Audubon relied on observations by fellow birders as well as his own to create life-size depictions of birds in a natural habitat. In AUDUBON IN ACTION, those varied observations are put back into Audubon's representations. Over the past decade, volunteers have tracked and monitored the bird species that inhabit or fly over the city, sharing photos and sounds of the birds. As many of these observations are licensed for redistribution, I downloaded these files to use in the project. In a photomosaic, a picture is divided into tiled sections, each of which is replaced with another photograph that matches the target photo. In this case Audubon's plates serve as the target photo, and are tiled with modern photographs from the Birds of Philadelphia project.


Mosaic of the American Robin plate from Audubon's BIRDS OF NORTH AMERICA

I also experimented with using data sonification (the process of turning data into sound), furthering Audubon's interest in dynamic recreation and documentation by highlighting situational experiences. Xeno-canto uses the ever-evolving possibilities of the internet to popularize and increase knowledge of bird sounds. For any observation data with an associated sound, these files were exported and saved to a folder named for the corresponding common bird name. Additional sound files were downloaded via the xeno-canto API, querying based on the common bird names. Birds were then matched, by common name, to the corresponding plate images - only those that were matched were included in the project. The sonification of the observation data was created using Pydub, where 1 second is the equivalent of 1 day of observations. For any day when birds were observed, a random sound file for the corresponding bird was appended to the file. Silence means no birds were observed on that day. This audio snippet represents all the birds sighted in 2021.


How can creative projects like this one help interpret wildlife data differently than traditional data visualizations? As you explore these different interpretations of observation data - a painting, a photomosaic, and a sound recording - what new insights does it bring you? How might science communicators use these creative approaches to understand and communicate environmental data?

Created as part of Earth Week Data Jam, I hope participants take this as inspiration to find creative ways to amplify, build on, and disseminate data, using digital collections and crowdsourcing projects. You can build your own mosaic, displays, and sonification for any (or all!) of the birds included in the project using the Jupyter notebooks available on GitHub - no coding experience necessary! 

If you're interested in contributing to sustaining bird wildlife at Penn, there are lots of opportunities! The Office of Sustainability, along with Facilities and Real Estate Services, is working towards bird-friendly design on campus. In addition to their own iNaturalist project, Bird Aware Penn,  student EcoReps and collaborators collect information on Penn Bird Strikes to identify and analyze various bird strike hotspots, developed an educational campaign (for both mitigation and tracking), devised a hotline for the public and Penn housekeeping to notify the team of any bird strikes, and drafted a building clause that included bird-safety guidelines. 


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