The Global Big Day was created four years ago by eBird, an online database of bird observations. The platform is a great example of crowdsourcing and citizen science, whereby birders worldwide can log their sightings, allowing scientists and researchers to use real-time data to study bird distribution and abundance. Cornell Lab of Ornithology created the Big Day to get thousands of birders across the globe out into the field on the same day, in order to spread awareness of not only the platform, but bird numbers, distribution, and habitat, and the astonishing bird diversity this planet counts on.
The event also became something of an informal competition over the years, as the most bird-diverse countries vie to post the highest number of observations and be crowned champions of what has been jokingly dubbed “the World Cup of Birding.” Peru took home the gold medal in 2015 and 2016, but—thanks to a huge grassroots organizational campaign—Colombia romped home in 1st place in 2017 with a world-record breaking 1,487 species in one day. 2018 was a big year for the Big Day, as Peru doubled their efforts to win for the third time, and Colombia attempted to win back-to-back Big Years.
Colombia—with 1,932 recorded bird species, the most of any country in the world—faced a huge task in its goal to not only win the competition for the second time, but also to register more than 1,500 species in one day. However, the country’s birders were more than up to the task, and the organizational efforts were once again phenomenal. Amateur birders joined up with more experienced observers to create a hitlist of missing species, focusing on important parts of the country where they could likely spot species not previously registered. Hashtags like #SeBusca (#Wanted) and #CadaAveCuenta (#EveryBirdCounts) were used to draw attention to key species and encourage everyone with an interest to get involved. Government ministries even threw their weight behind awareness campaigns, and SATENA—the Colombia airline which flies to the most off-the-beaten-track parts of the country—donated flight tickets to send birders to far-flung corners of Colombia.
Colombia’s total set a record: one country, over a 24 hour period, registered more than 15% of the bird species on the planet. The Colombian department of Antioquia, with 737 species registered, saw more species in a single day than exist in the entire United States of America. Meta department in the Eastern Plains went from registering only 24 species in 2015 to spotting just shy of 600 species this year, thereby coming in 4th place in Colombia and testifying to the across-the-board biodiversity that Colombia has to offer.
The only question that remains for Colombia is how they can possibly beat their record in 2019. The answer seems to be the same one that helped secure the victory this year: more birders in the field across the country, submitting more lists, and seeing even more birds. The Colombian birding community is only getting stronger and acquiring more knowledge, and this opens up the real possibility that the country could even reach 1,600 species in 2019—the way things went this year, it would be foolish to underestimate Colombian bird lovers.
One of the principal Big Day coordinators in the country, Diego Calderón, is keen to stress “how much stronger and more educated the birding community in Colombia is nowadays,” and how this change has facilitated the huge numbers that Colombia has registered over the past two years. Regions that were once considered off-limits due to Colombia’s armed conflict are now opening up to expert birders and scientists. As Calderón puts it, “the really beautiful and meaningful part of this Global Big Day [is] the fact that we can reach almost all of the corners of our country and that we can now go and look for the rare birds.”
The win also allows Colombia to spotlight ecotourism and birding tourism in a country that has been stigmatized for many years and now aims to show international visitors the numerous treasures of the country. With each successful and more expansive Big Day, Colombia demonstrates how bird watching could serve as a tool for conservation and economic development, particularly in rural areas that benefit most from Colombia’s recent peace process with the FARC. Regions which were once blighted by conflict can now see the potential to improve their economies through bird tourism. Colombia’s victory isn’t just about being No. 1, it’s about changing people’s perceptions of a beautiful and underrepresented country that has so much to offer.
Above all, the real winner in all of this is science and ornithology. Globally, more than 28,000 observers reported 6,904 bird species—2/3 of the global total—and these observations will allow Cornell’s scientists to more accurately assess bird numbers, migration patterns, and the status of many rare and threatened species. The Global Big Day truly is citizen-led science at its very best. And Colombia has firmly established itself as the Global Big Day champions, the country to compete with, and the country all nature lovers should visit.