What the finder knew: measuring changing public knowledge of natural history

Project Details

Key Questions

Using the unique opportunity afforded by the BTO Ring-recovery finder data, we shall ask three broad questions:

  1. How has public knowledge of nature, and birds in particular, changed over the last 50 years?
  2. What contextual factors contribute to observed effects?

What might be the likely drivers of observed changes?


Conservationists are concerned about a perceived decline in public knowledge and direct experience of nature, but have lacked objective data with which to quantify the decline. Through its airing in the press and other media it has become a public concern. Birds are the best-known wild animal taxon in the UK. In consultation with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Bird Ringing Scheme, a dataset has been generated that, uniquely, permits quantification of this issue.


British bird ringers fit some 800,000 wild birds annually with uniquely numbered, addressed, leg rings. About 14,000 ringed birds are subsequently ‘recovered’ annually, of which many are found by members of the public (often found dead, e.g. hit by car, taken by cat), and reported to the BTO. Finders often report an identification, which, for more than 50 years, has been computerized. By comparing finders’ identifications with ringers’ identification (assumed correct) this offers a unique opportunity to examine identification accuracy over time. For the data in question, the unplanned experiment represented by the National Bird Ringing Scheme is equivalent to presenting dead birds at random to members of the public over a space of 50 years and asking for their identification.

Aims of the Project

Despite wide public interest and concern for nature in general, and birds in particular, in the UK, there is strong evidence, including preliminary analysis of the BTO ring-recovery finder data, that general knowledge of nature has declined over the past 50 years. This project aims to quantify this change for the first time through the novel use of a unique dataset. In addition to this core question, through the use of available metadata, the project aims to consider what factors have contributed to observed changes, and so what might be the socio-cultural drivers of change. This project therefore aims to yield results of considerable public and political interest that are of great significance for nature conservation.

Project Description

Effective biological conservation requires the concern of an engaged public, i.e. a public with, at least some, first-hand experience and knowledge of nature. Concern has grown over recent years about a perceived decline in knowledge of basic natural history, especially in younger people, both in post-industrial and traditional or indigenous societies. This is indicative of a growing detachment from nature, and is perhaps driven partly, at least in post-industrial societies, by what has been termed the ‘extinction of experience’. Such concerns have been highlighted through popular media and books, e.g. Last Child in the Woods (R. Louv 2005). While older people have a strong sense therefore that public knowledge of natural history has declined, we have lacked objective data with which to demonstrate a change in the UK (or any other) population. In consultation with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Bird Ringing Scheme, a dataset has been generated that, uniquely, offers to shed light on this issue.

For many decades the BTO has run a national bird ringing programme, through which typically some 800,000 wild birds are fitted with uniquely numbered, addressed, leg rings and released. The scheme contributes essential data for the study of bird survival, migration and other life-history parameters. Typically, about 14,000 of these ringed birds are ‘recovered’ subsequently each year. Some are found by other bird ringers, but many are found by members of the public, who report finding the bird (which may be dead, e.g. hit by car, taken by cat) to the BTO. Throughout the near 100 years of the BTO Ringing Scheme, finders have often reported their identification of the bird. Since 1960, these identifications have been computerized, so offering the opportunity to compare these randomly allocated identifications with the ringer’s identification, which may be assumed correct.


Using the BTO’s data on ‘finder’ identifications of ringed birds over the past 50 years, in comparison with the known identification provided at the time of ringing, the project aims to detect, document and explain changes in identification accuracy over time. It therefore offers a unique opportunity to quantify and analyse changing public knowledge of a key element of natural history in the UK. We emphasise: The data available for this project are unique. They are equivalent to presenting dead birds at random to members of the public over a space of 50 years and asking for their identification.


Birds are the UK’s best-known wild vertebrate taxon. For example, in 2015, 200,000 voluntary participants contributed to a ballot to ‘elect’ Britain’s National Bird. Overwhelmingly they chose the Robin Erithacus rubecula, with 34% of the vote; demonstrably therefore, the UK’s most salient and iconic wild bird. Despite this, however, a preliminary analysis of the BTO ring-recovery finder data shows that between 2000 and 2017, correct identification of recovered Robins, dropped significantly from 90% to 80% (i.e. 20% of ringed Robins reported by the public in 2017 were incorrectly identified or reported as unknown species), and although juvenile Robins differ from adults in appearance, so perhaps accounting for some misidentifications, there is no a priori reason to expect the proportion of juveniles, and therefore this bias,  to have increased over time. Nevertheless, this, and many other questions, offer themselves for analysis, both to address the important question of knowledge decline, and also to consider differences in knowledge or salience between species, and how the context of finding (cat, car, urban, rural etc.) affects the data. In addition to the uniqueness of the data already mentioned, this project therefore offers the possibility for a DPhil that is likely to yield results of considerable public and political interest.


At this time, the dataset generated for the PI by the BTO Ringing Office (which includes 150,000 ringing recoveries) identifies whether the bird was identified correctly or not identified, and since 1979 also whether the group (e.g. genus or family) was identified correctly. However, since 2014, online submission of recovery information has been available, which requires the finder to report the ID if they can. This dataset allows time trends in finder skills to be analysed, but through the addition of metadata (and subject to ethical guidance) that are either not yet extracted, or have not yet been identified (e.g. generating year-specific habitat information from finder postcodes), will allow a comprehensive analysis of how species, age (of bird), sex (bird where known, and potentially finder through gender-specific forenames), urban/suburban/rural and even socio-economic context (through postcode), date, etc. might predict identification accuracy.  Additional significant questions to be addressed include: a) How has reporting behaviour changed over time? b) How does the ring address (some rings carry a www.bto.org address) influence reporting rates? c) Are reporting rates across species correlated with other potential measures of a species’ salience such as the number of hits on BTO website species pages? Thorough analysis of the data will require ornithological knowledge as well as some socio-cultural intelligence, guidance for both will be provided through the collaborative supervision offered by the PI’s EWA research group and the BTO.

Methods to be used

The dataset so far generated consists of annual summaries by species of numbers of ‘non-ringer’ recoveries and numbers correctly identified.  Recent online submission of recovery information has added to the quality and value of the data by adding extensive metadata, which will allow analysis of e.g. how species, age (of bird), sex (of bird and finder), urban/suburban/rural context, date etc. might predict identification accuracy. Further data extraction, and ‘ground-truthing’ of the data at the BTO will be necessary fully to validate datasets, and subject to ethical constraints, to explore what additional metadata can be evaluated by use of finder names and postcodes, but analyses will be chiefly statistical.

Specialised skills required

A good grounding in ecology and statistics will be essential, as will a knowledge of British birds and bird ringing. Whilst not essential as a prerequisite knowledge, a willingness to engage with social-sciences methodology is also important if an understanding of the drivers of change in public knowledge is to be elucidated. A willingness to present findings to general as well as professional audiences is also important. Through the PI’s EWA research group and working with the BTO (a leading science-based conservation NGO), the student will have the opportunity to engage in bird ringing, as well as receiving guidance through the extensive relevant ecological and social-science literature.

Collaborator contribution in kind

The collaboration of the BTO is clearly key to the success of this project, with respect both to data access and interpretation. Dr Robinson will supervise the student while they are at the BTO and will help with data interpretation relevant to ornithological and procedural aspects of the project which may have a bearing on the validity and scope of the data to answer specific questions.

Please contact Andy Gosler on  andrew.gosler@zoo.ox.ac.uk and Rob Robinson on rob.robinson@bto.org if you are interested in this project