USGS - science for a changing world




What is Phenology?
Phenology is the scientific study of the relationship between natural phenomena (flowering, breeding, migration) and climatic or seasonal changes.

What is the BPP?
The North American Bird Phenology Program houses a unique and largely forgotten collection of six million Migration Observer Cards that illuminate migration patterns and population status of birds in North America. These handwritten cards contain almost all of what was known of bird distribution and natural history from the Second World War back to the later part of the 19th century. The bulk of the records are the result of a network of observers who recorded migration arrival dates in the spring and fall that, in its heyday, involved 3000 participants. Today, those records are being processed and placed into a modern database for analysis. This information will be used, along with recently collected arrival times of migrant birds, in conjunction with historical weather data to show how migration is affected by climate change. The information from this analysis will provide critical information on bird distribution, migration timing and migration pathways and how they are changing. There is no other program that has this depth of information that can help us understand the effect that global climate change has on bird populations across the country.

How did this Program Begin?
This program was started in the 1881 by Wells W. Cooke, who wanted to broaden knowledge and understanding of migration. While teaching on the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota, Cooke began noting the arrival dates of migratory birds. He later coordinated volunteers throughout the Mississippi flyway to collect arrival and departure data. His success sparked the interest of C. Hart Merriam, of the newly formed American Ornithologist’s Union (AOU) who expanded the volunteer network to include the entire United States, Canada and a portion of the West Indies. The program was then passed, in the late 1880’s, to the Division of Economic Ornithology where it reached its greatest extent of 3000 volunteers. Although the program was actively maintained by the Federal Government, participation gradually declined and in 1970 the program was closed. For many years since, these records have been kept safe by USGS Senior Scientist Chan Robbins and after years of little use and even less recognition passed on to Jessica Zelt who is databasing these past records and reviewing the program’s possible uses and potential for collecting new data.

BPP timeline
BPP Historical Timeline (click to enlarge)

Who is Wells W. Cooke?
Wells W. Cooke, son of Reverand 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 go to “Become a Participant.


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