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IU scientists launching smartphone app to report bird behavior during eclipse

Mar 27, 2024

Ph.D. student Liz Aguilar and associate professor Kim Rosvall in the College of Arts and Sciences connected with experts at the Luddy Sch... Ph.D. student Liz Aguilar and associate professor Kim Rosvall in the College of Arts and Sciences connected with experts at the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering in Bloomington through the Office of Science Outreach to develop the Solar Bird app. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana UniversityThe total eclipse of the sun passing over the continental U.S. on April 8 will present a once-in-a-lifetime research opportunity to scientists. At Indiana University Bloomington, biologists who study animal behavior will leverage the knowledge and enthusiasm of several passionate groups — birdwatchers, eclipse watchers and people who love science — to understand the potential impact of four minutes of “unexpected” darkness on birds.

In collaboration with the IU Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering in Bloomington, Ph.D. student Liz Aguilar and associate professor Kim Rosvall of the IU College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology are calling upon “community scientists” across the country to submit information on bird behavior through SolarBird, a smartphone app the team will be launching to assist in their research project.

“There is still a lot we don’t know about how animals respond to an eclipse,” said Aguilar, a National Science Foundation-funded research graduate fellow in Rosvall’s lab, which focuses on the interaction of behavior, physiology and the evolutionary process in animals. “These events are rare, and there’s limited data.”

This eclipse is especially notable because it’s occurring at an exciting time for wild birds.

“Locally breeding birds are gearing up for their once-a-year shot at breeding,” Rosvall said. “For other birds, it’s during the peak migration, which occurs at night.”

A woman opens a bird house Ph.D. student Liz Aguilar and her team hope to collect at least 1,000 observations about birds over the course of the eclipse. Photo courtesy of Teresa Mackin

The sudden onset of darkness — akin to a sunset — in the middle of the day could disrupt many important behaviors.

“Like us, many animals have internal clocks, or circadian rhythms, that regulate their behavior and physiology,” Aguilar said. “This optimizes behavior so important activities happen at the right time, such as eating, sleeping, singing and migrating. But these rhythms respond to external cues. As shifts in light occur in the approach to totality, they’re going to potentially affect these behaviors.”

Due to the logistical challenges of collecting data about an event occurring across thousands of miles in just a few hours, Rosvall and Aguilar decided to create an app to recruit people across the U.S. in their research. They connected with experts at the Luddy School in Bloomington through the Office of Science Outreach, which was already working with many faculty on outreach and education activities.

“Our role is leading the technical side of the project: the app development,” said Paul Macklin, an associate professor and associate dean of undergraduate education in the Luddy School in Bloomington. “We’re driving the overall design and user interface to find the right middle ground: detailed enough to provide meaningful data, but simple enough to use quickly.”

The lead developers on the app are Luddy School undergraduate Ryan Jacobson and master’s degree student Sean Dixit. Jacobson, who has experience in iOS app development, is programming the database backend. Dixit, who is most familiar with Android, is focusing on the user interface, including the development of “observation dialogues.” The students’ work is supported through a grant from the Indiana Space Grant Consortium.

“This project is a great learning experience,” Macklin said. “The students are not only applying programming skills; they’re also learning about scientific and technical concepts such as data validation, as well as the legal aspects of data collection, such as data rights and protecting user privacy. Sometimes these aspects constrain how we build the app, or require extra checks like geofencing.”

The team is also offering technical solutions to reduce data collection demands upon users, he added. For example, Macklin said GPS technology will spare users from entering details about weather or eclipse conditions at the time of their observations since this data can be gleaned from a smartphone’s location.

From left, Paul Macklin, Liz Aguilar, Ryan Jacobson and Sean Dixit collaborate on the Solar Bird app design. Photo by James Bro... From left, Paul Macklin, Liz Aguilar, Ryan Jacobson and Sean Dixit collaborate on the Solar Bird app design. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

The app makers can also leverage location to determine what species of birds are most common in the region users are submitting data from. As a result, community scientists will only be asked to submit a general size classification — large, medium or small bird — to provide meaningful data, as opposed to attempting to identify the bird species.

“Our goal is to provide a streamlined process so people can enjoy the moment of totality and everything leading up to and after,” Aguilar said. “We don’t want data collection to take a lot of time; it will be a simple process of observing what that bird is doing.”

The teams’ goal is to collect at least 1,000 observations over the course of the eclipse. The complete transit of the moon’s shadow across the face of the sun will last several minutes to several hours, depending on users’ locations.

“We will be nearing four minutes of total darkness in many locations, so that’s long enough for animals to really respond,” Aguilar said. “For birds that are active during the day, they may think it’s nighttime and start going up to roost in trees. We can really capitalize on that length of time.”

One category of animals whose behavior the researchers do not expect to shift is pets, Rosvall added. Given their experience with shifts in light in homes throughout the day, she said cats and dogs are “more likely to notice the traffic outside or the fact their human is excited” than light changes from the eclipse.

“I would encourage everyone to pay attention not only to birds but also what else they see or hear during the eclipse,” Aguilar said. “It could start to sound like nighttime; crickets may get louder as we reach totality. There’s so much to experience;- it’s going to be an exciting moment. An eclipse provides a unique moment to not only look up but also around, to connect with nature and experience the natural world.”

SolarBird is now available for download in the Apple App Store on iOS or Google Play Store on Android.

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IU Newsroom

Kevin Fryling

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