What is a wild count?

Wild counts data are vastly more useful than casual observations for uncovering changes in nature.

written Jan 8, 2018 (last updated Sep 5, 2021) • by Jon Sullivan • Category: Why count

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Wild counts are not casual observations

For centuries amateur and professional naturalists have been documenting the wild. Museums and herbaria are filled with the specimens they’ve collected, and now modern equivalents like iNaturalist are filling fast with millions of photos and audio recordings of wild species. Almost all of these observations were made in a haphazard way, where someone found a particular species at a particular place and time, and they were interested enough that they chose to record it.

We call these “casual observations” here. That’s because they were not collected in a consistent way that can be used to uncover trends and patterns in species. Casual observations make it really difficult to untangle what the species were doing from what the people were doing. For example, was a species really absent from a site in a given year, or did nobody who was there bother to record it?

Wild counts are What-Why-Where-When-How-Who counts

If you really want to know what’s going on in nature, you need What-Why-Where-When-How-Who counts. These include what species were looked for (regardless of whether or not they were found), why (the reason for looking), where and when the species were searched for, how they were searched for (your search method), and who was searching.

This can be as simple as

“I went out for a walk alone along my usual route, on this day between these times, without any special equipment, and looked for my favourite butterfly.”

That’s it! You’re making What-Why-Where-When-How-Who counts when when you write that down each time you’re out walking. You just need to do it each walk, regardless of whether or not you find any of your favourite butterfly.

It’s silly to keep saying What-Why-Where-When-How-Who counts, so we call them wild counts. Wild counts are complete and consistent What-Why-Where-When-How-Who counts of living organisms. They are counts designed to be connected together to document patterns and trends in natures. It’s best if they’re stored and shared in a consistent, standard format.

Wild counts data are vastly more useful than casual observations for uncovering changes in nature. That’s because they’re comparable in space and time, and they include all the times and places where people looked for species but didn’t find them. All of this makes wild counts excellent for documenting trends and patterns in nature.

In universities and research institutes, this kind of data is also called ecological survey data. However, only some ecological survey data are complete wild counts, and others are wild counts plus a lot of additional complexity. Ecological survey datasets tend to be in wildly different data structures and formats, since they come from projects designed for a diversity of purposes to answer a wide range of questions. This can make it difficult data to connect together to tell bigger stories of change.

Wild counts can be simple to do

As the above butterfly example shows, making wild counts is also super simple to do. Strangely, despite this, hardly anybody does it. Most naturalists are still out there, as they were centuries ago, following their curiosity and recording whatever grabs their interest. The WildCounts website wants to change that. It wants to help nature enthusiasts add a dash of consistency to their nature watching.

There is one group of naturalists that has been collecting wild counts data for a long time: birders. A birder is making wild counts whenever they head out with the intention of recording all birds, they record exactly where they went, and when, with what visual aids (like binoculars or a spotting scope), and who they were with. Birders have been using eBird to amass tens of millions of wild counts of birds.

Why isn’t everybody else doing this? It’s just as easy to do for lots of other species. Also, you don’t need to be a mad-skills birder to make wild counts of birds. You can just pick one bird species that you like, and that you can reliably identify, and you can just make wild counts of that.

Choose some species, learn the method here that’s most suitable for you and your species, and you can start making wild counts.

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