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Patuxent Wildlife Research Center



What is Phenology?

Phenology is the study of recurring plant and animal life cycle stages, or phenophases, such as leafing and flowering of plants, maturation of agricultural crops, emergence of insects, and migration of birds. Many of these events are sensitive to climatic variation and change, and are simple to observe and record.

What is the BPP?

The North American Bird Phenology Program, part of the USA-National Phenology Network, was a network of volunteer observers who recorded information on first arrival dates, maximum abundance, and departure dates of migratory birds across North America.  Active between 1880 and 1970, the program was coordinated by the Federal government and sponsored by the American Ornithologists' Union.  It exists now as a historic collection of six million migration card observations, illuminating almost a century of migration patterns and population status of birds.  Today, in an innovative project to curate the data and make them publically available, the records are being scanned and placed on the internet, where volunteers worldwide transcribe these records and add them into a database for analysis. 

How did the BPP begin?

The following BPP History was assembled by Brandon Kell through research at the Gabrielson Library.
Brandon would like to thank Lynda Garrett for all of the help she provided.

In 1881 Wells W. Cooke began his study on bird migration. He initially planned to study the birds of Iowa, but when he moved to Minnesota to teach on the White Plains Indian Reservation he decided to include the entire Mississippi Valley. He began contacting ornithologists throughout the area, the first two years of his study he was receiving correspondence from about 20 observers (Cooke 9). In the fall of 1883 the American Ornithologist Union (AOU) was founded and they took interest in Wells Cooke’s research. The AOU quickly formed a committee on the Migration and Distribution of birds, of which C. Hart Merriam was to be head (Merriam 71). The AOU contacted everyone from farmers to lighthouse keepers to help collect migration information. By 1884, the task of collecting and cataloging the amount of information had outgrown the capabilities and funding of the AOU. Merriam drafted a memo to Congress asking for the appropriation of funds and the creation of The Division of Economic Ornithology (The Auk Vol3 116). Over the next several years as Chief of the Division of Economic Ornithology Merriam helped increase the amount of participation to about 3,000 observers.

In 1901 Wells W. Cooke was hired by the Biological Survey, after spending a period of 16 years dedicated to college work, and took up the work that he had helped begin (Palmer 160). The migration records that had been collected since the Division’s inception had for the most part been untouched. In the summer of 1901 he selected 60 of the most common birds and began analyzing the information (Palmer 214).

The Division of Economic Ornithology which was now named the Division of Biological Survey was still under the leadership of C. Hart Merriam. Merriam’s time was being consumed by other projects and control over the research of Distribution and Migration of birds was left in the hands of Cooke. Cooke ran the program and published many papers using the migration information until his abrupt death of pneumonia in 1916(Palmer 131). After Cooke’s death the program was supervised by the likes of Edward A. Goldman, Edward W. Nelson, Harry C. Oberholser, and May Thatcher Cooke (Wells’ daughter). By 1918 the number migration records on file numbered over 1,350,000 but the number of active observers had dropped to about 250, in part due to World War I (Nelson).

In 1920 the Biological Survey took over the work started by the American Bird Banding Association and Fred Lincoln was hired to organize the Bird Banding Lab (BBL) (Tautin). Lincoln was also given the task of overseeing the collection and organization of the migration and distribution records. Lincoln would manage the BBL and records on distribution and migration until retiring in 1947 (Tautin). After Lincoln’s retirement John Aldrich became chief of the section on Distribution and Migration of birds, however Chandler “Chan” Robbins took over the supervision and collection of the migration records (Banks 750). After the realization that other programs like the Audubon Society could continue the work more efficiently and with fewer burdens on the Federal Government Chan decided the program should stop accepting records in 1970.

From the close of the program in 1970 Chan Robbins continued to make sure the records were kept safe. In 2008, Sam Droege and Jessica Zelt, with help from the National Phenology Network revived the migration program and dubbed it the North American Bird Phenology Program. The program that started as Wells Cooke’s research in the Mississippi Valley and grew through the help of the American Ornithologist Union to become the Division of Economic Ornithology would later become the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The records are now being digitized and with help from citizen scientists the information will be combined in an online database accessible to the public. What began as a quest to find out how and why birds migrate, turned into one of our Nations greatest and longest running programs.

List of References


BPP timeline
BPP Historical Timeline (click to enlarge)

Who is Wells W. Cooke?

Wells W. Cooke, son of Reverend Elisha Woodbridge Cook and Martha Miranda (Smith) Cook, was born on January 25, 1858, in Haydenville, Massachusetts. The 5th of nine children and eldest boy, Cooke developed an interest in natural history at the age of 12, when he received his first gun. He was known to collect bird specimens from his neighborhood and surrounding area. Cooke went on to receive an A.B. and A.M. degree from Ripon College. After his marriage to Carrie Amy Raymond in 1879, Cooke became a teacher in Indian schools and secondary schools in Minnesota. It was here, in Minnesota, that Cooke first began documenting arrival dates and began what is now the BPP.
Notably, Wells Cooke became a member of the newly formed American Ornithologist’s Union in 1884, elected in part due to papers he published while teaching in the Mississippi Valley. In 1885, Cooke became a Professor, and over a 16 year period was associated with three colleges: the University of Vermont, the state Agricultural College of Colorado, and the state College of Pennsylvania. Cooke also began an appointment with the Biological Survey in the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1901 which lasted for 15 years, in which he published many publications on bird migration and distribution. Wells W. Cooke contributed in countless ways to the field of ornithology. He was the most eminent biologist on bird migration and distribution of his time.

If you would like to learn more about Wells W. Cooke or read his publications, please go to our Bibliography Page.


How does the BPP work?

BPP relies heavily on the participation of citizen scientists. We currently house six million cards which need to be scanned onto our website and then converted, solely by volunteers, into our database. If you would like to get involved with this program, please register.


What is the USA- National Phenology Network?

The USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN) monitors the influence of climate on the phenology of plants, animals, and landscapes. We do this by encouraging people to observe phenological events like leaf out, flowering, migrations, and egg laying, and by providing a place for people to enter, store, and share their observations. We also work with researchers to develop tools and techniques to use these observations to support a wide range of decisions made routinely by citizens, managers, scientists and others, including decisions related to allergies, wildfires, water, and conservation.

The USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN) encourages people of all ages and backgrounds to observe and record phenologies as tools to discover and explore the nature and pace of our dynamic world. The Network makes phenology data, models, and related information freely available to empower scientists, resource managers and the public in decision-making and adaptation in response to variable and changing climates and environments.

The USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN) serves science and society by promoting broad understanding of plant and animal phenology and its relationship with environmental change.  The Network is a consortium of individuals and organizations that collect, share, and use phenology data, models, and related information.

Click here to view a talk about the USA-NPN by Jake Weltzin, Executive Director, given in 2010 as part of the USGS Public Lecture Series at the Western Region offices of the USGS

How is the BPP integrated with the USA National Phenology Network?

The USA- NPN collects phenological observations of plants and animals in cooperation with existing phenology monitoring programs, with the aim to increase our understanding of how the phenologies of organisms and landscapes respond to environmental variation and climate change. The goals of the USA-NPN and the BPP align naturally. In particular, the USA-NPN database will provide an ideal location to store the BPP data, making it publicly accessible and integrating it with other phenological data. Also, the BPP methods for digitizing historical data will be adapted to digitize other historical datasets of phenology data. The USA-NPN’s relationships with numerous government agencies, academic institutions, nongovernmental programs, and other organizations, and its knowledge of many key historical datasets, will facilitate the use of the BPP’s digitization techniques to rescue important data.


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