The Long Tail of Birding

The long tail is a term credited to Chris Anderson, editor of Wired Magazine. He says that “products that are in low demand or have low sales volume can collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds the relatively few current bestsellers and blockbusters, if the store or distribution channel is large enough.”

Plain Chachalaca
Plain Chachalaca showing his long tail feathers

An example of the long tail is music downloads – iTunes can store and sell millions of songs, a small amount of which will be top sellers, but a much larger amount of which get much less downloads each. If iTunes only sold the best sellers, think of the business they’d lose, not to mention how worthless their service would be.

The yellow part of this graph is the long tail, all the thousands of “mini-hits”.

How about Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia created by people from all over the world. A project as huge as Wikipedia could never have been created by a handful of experts. Instead, by using a massive community of people, ranging from experts to amateurs, Wikipedia grew rapidly and provides something that no print encyclopedia can accomplish – thousands of obscure entries and the ability to provide updated information on any topic (as long as there are users to enter that info).

The long tail can be applied to birding in many ways too.

Field Guides
Currently, there are an ever increasing number of field guides to birds from bird-loaded places like Peru to unknown locales like Oman. While these are wonderful assets to traveling birders, they are often out-of-date and missing tons of information. This isn’t a knock on the hard work of the creators of the guides, just a fact on the difficulties of obtaining such data.

Enter the long tail. What if a system much like Wikipedia was created for a world bird guide. This guide would be created and edited by ornithologists and birders from all over the world. The data would grow as new information was obtained and would be open to anyone. Photos and videos could be added along with the scientific data and this would all be organized and searchable.

Breeding Bird Surveys and Bird Distribution
What about all the hundreds of birders who find birds and record their whereabouts? They might contribute the data to Rare Bird Alerts, state ornithological societies, the American Birding Association, etc. but how does this data reach the public? Cornell’s online bird guide, a wonderful source of information, shows the Blue Grosbeak’s range only reaching into southern Illinois. However, the bird is a confirmed nester in the northwestern part of the state.

If there was an online site for birders everywhere to enter their data, the information on bird distribution could be kept much better up-to-date providing a vastly improved resource for conservationists (as well as birders).

Now, there already is a wonderful source for entering bird sightings. eBird lets you submit sightings from whatever location you were at on a certain day. This information, taken together, provides a much bigger picture of where and when birds are at. However, there are some limitations on this – users can’t enter behavioral or habitat information among others. Plus, the data does not let you actually view maps or information on conservation status, etc.

The long tail has other possibilities involving birds and conservation. But the most important concept is that the more birders involved in adding data about birds, the better our hobby and the environment will be.

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