Friday, February 24, 2012

Wikipedia for the birds

"Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it." - Andre Gide

Public availability of knowledge is a great idea that should not require selling. The idea that "knowledge" is neccessarily incomplete and constantly in a state of flux is however something that does not go down well with many people. The surety of being right is far more comfortable than having to question what we hear or read. Most people trained in science are expected to be more comfortable with this state of being critical and careful about all knowledge. For a lot of people, however, Wikipedia has been that wakening call - and one of the first ever studies of the accuracy of knowledge available on it focussed on the fact that it had the same number of errors as other sources with a reputation for being accurate.

Given the state of flux it is somewhat surprising that there still are researchers who fail to see the value of contributing to Wikipedia - using it to document and summarize the state of published knowledge. A recent note in the venerable ornithological journal The Ibis - titled - "Why ornithologists should embrace and contribute to Wikipedia" by A. L. Bond (Ibis 153:640–641) is of interest and one would have thought that ornithologists or indeed all scientists would take to Wikipedia without the need for such persuasion.

In countries like India, where the attitude of governance (and government funded research)  is not one of being supportive - even organizations dealing with environmental conservation make little effort to supply citizens with information. There is no enforceable principle that the government should supply information proactively (except as an obscure clause in the Right to Information Act 2005 which states that public bodies should NOT wait for citizens to seek information). The Wikimedia Foundation provided me with a travel grant to attend the first WikiConference in Mumbai and at a session (presentation material here) there I pointed out, much to the amusement of the audience, how very intellectually stimulating a visit to the websites of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Zoological Survey of India and Botanical Survey of India are. Indeed there are no government-run place where a citizen can seek knowledge about something around them without having to spend the rest of their life filling forms and sending money orders or registered letters. On the other hand, the experience of someone seeking answers to their queries on the Wikipedia reference desks for science or mathematics is a world apart. Wikipedia articles themselves each have a "talk" or discussion page and one can ask questions, question the legitimacy of information or seek better clarity, something that cannot be done with a textbook and often and sadly enough even with teachers. 

Wikipedia articles are often not always in great form, and are only improved when knowledgeable and conscientious editors / readers try to improve them. Since 2002, I have been working on some of the articles and have set upon myself the task of improving the articles on Indian birds. More than anything, it is a very satisfying experience to research the existing literature. I decided to work on the species starting with the most frequently met ones - a working list of which is on - and it has to be reiterated that there is no such thing as a complete article, indeed there never will be a book or any other work that is "complete". Some years ago, I attempted to impress upon the more literate bird enthusiasts of India how little we have progressed in terms of collecting, collating, updating and making available new information on the birds in India. (See Shyamal, L. 2007. Opinion: Taking Indian ornithology into the Information Age. Indian Birds 3 (4): 122–137.) The situation in other taxonomic groups can hardly be considered any better - words like "taxonomic impediment" have been invented for the inability of support for identification in zoology. Even the taxonomists working on specific groups seem to believe that they cannot help. In 2001, I was invited to a discussion on using computers in taxonomy - and there were people making it appear like zoologists needed to learn a whole load about relational databases and Codd's rules so that they could contribute. Being a complete outsider to this clique I suggested that they needed none of this obscure additional computer science and that they merely needed to get their act together and post plain documents of their knowledge into the Internet and that other people or other computational systems (such as search engines) would come along and collate the available information in new forms. A decade on, it seems that nothing much has changed and the few "providers" of information still feel they cannot do much, but it is interesting that the "seekers" and "consumers" of information have now empowered into becoming the new "ersatz providers".

I recently decided to see how the "seekers" work with Wikipedia articles and examined the traffic on various articles. I was interested to see if there was a seasonal trend with people looking up information for certain species in winter, however the picture is not so clear. The visitation to Wikipedia articles on a bird species is related to (1) the chances that people know the name for a bird; (2) the nature of the species - how much it influences folks to look it up on the Internet; and (3) the position of the article on Google search results, which in turn is related to the "quality" of the Wikipedia article.

In 2011, the number of visitors per month to the list of Indian birds (and a local Bangalore list for comparison) were (semi-automatially collated from ):

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
List of birds of India 7401 6193 5616 7090 8768 11788 11238 10102 24240 10419 16052 13782
List of birds of Bangalore 652 619 947 549 674 543 683 757 574 478 820 568

Among "lists of birds", the Indian list was second only to the Florida list during January 2011 ! For the species themselves the monthly activity was relatively stable, showing little difference across months in the vast majority of species. A few show spikes, but these appear to be related to either media related interest or due to appearing or being linked to something on higher traffic Wikipedia pages. For a full table of the statistics see here. The overal statistics follow the usual power distribution with the top hundred species getting 60.4% and the top 500 species receiving 90% of the total traffic of 14.46 million visits in 2011.

When people find something interesting in the media, they sometimes look up Wikipedia articles and the results is a surge in traffic on their pages. In the unsorted 30 day traffic one can see a spike in the traffic for the Black-necked Stork - this is probably due to a media event. On the other hand one can see a correlated peaking for the Black and Red Kites for 2012-02-02 - such activity indicates information seekers looking at a cluster of related species, possibly for comparing identifications. This kind of activity holds great promise - and it is doubtless that this will increase as new tools to seek information - that are not based merely on Google searches for names (which means you need to know the name before you seek info on it) - become commonplace. Imagine the day when you describe the colours of a bird on your mobile and it lists you the relevant Wikipedia bird pages, based on the region from where you access it. Until then, one can always seek information by posting images (if you are willing to share them via a non-restrictive Creative Commons license, that would be via - you can use your English or other language Wikipedia login for this site as well ) and asking for the identity on the Wikipedia projects - the extra advantage to this is that a good image might well become useful in one of the articles.

For birds - WikiProject Birds
For insects - WikiProject Insects
For plants - WikiProject Plants

and so on...,

Seek and ye shall find, and when you do, we shall too ...

Postscript - a sample of things that researching for a Wikipedia article can produce

In the last week, I have been researching the entry for Dendrocygna javanica - the Lesser Whistling Teal / Duck. A recent fieldguide for India by an American author P C Rasmussen - has this to say about the family - (Birds of South Asia. p. 67, volume 2) - "Two species in region; rather small, with long neck and legs, and upright carriage. In flight, readily identified by very broad wings and long necked shape; tend to circle around when disturbed. Both species are noisy and have specialised wing feathers that produce noise in flight.... "
Heinroth's 1911 description

This "specialised wing feathers" is not even mentioned in Salim Ali and Ripley's handbook - so I decided to examine this further. It turns out that in 1911, Oskar Heinroth, a German ornithologist, wrote about this idea which was published in the Proceedings of the International Ornithological Congress. The actual text reads as follows (from pages 673 and 696) :

Merkwürdig ist das laute Pfeifen, das Dendrocygna javanica im Fluge hervorbringt. Es wird verursacht durch einen eigenartigen Vorsprung an der Innenfahne der äußersten Handschwinge, die auf der nebenstehenden Abbildung in natürlicher Größe wiedergegeben ist. Den anderen Arten fehlt diese absonderliche Federbildung, und sie fliegen auch anscheinend ohne ein besonders bemerkenswertes Geräusch; bei ihnen  werden aber dafür, wenn sie die Flügel öffnen, weil hin auffallende Farben bemerkbar.   (Siehe unter "Bedeutung des Flügelspiegels" S. 696.)
 This translates as
The strange thing is the loud whistle that Dendrocygna javanica produces in flight. It is caused by a curious projection on the inner vane of the outermost primary feather, which is reproduced on the adjacent image in actual size. The other species lack this bizarre feather structure, and they seem to fly without any particularly remarkable sound, but when they open their wings, they have striking colors. (See "Understanding the wing mirror": page 696)
 And page 696 has this:
Von den mir naher bekannten Dendrocygna-Arten hat autumnalis und discolor einen breiten, weißen, arborea einen deutlich silbergrauen Spiegel, bei arcuata, fulva und eytoni sieht man im Fluge eine leuchtende, durch die Seitenfedern und Oberschwanzdecken erzeugte, um das hintere Körperende gehende Binde, viduata hat den abstechend weißen Kopf, und bei D. javanica, die keinerlei helle Farben hat, ist an die Stelle des optischen ein akustisches Lockmittel getreten: an der Innenfahne der äußersten handschwinge findet sich bei dieser Art ein ganz merkwürdiger, zungenartiger Fortsatz (s. Abbildung S. 673), der beim Flügelschlage ein Pfeifen hervorruft. Es wäre mir sehr erwünscht, wenn andere Beobachter diese von mir aufgestellten Behauptungen bei den übrigen Anseriformes, die meinen Studien  bisher nicht  zugänglich  waren,  nachprüften !
Which translates to:
From the Dendrocygna species that I know of - autumnalis and discolor have a wide white band, arborea a silvery gray colour, and in arcuata, fulva and eytoni in flight bright colors, produced by the side feathers and upper tail-coverts; viduata has a contrasting white head, and in D. javanica, which has no bright colors, the role of the visual effect is replaced by an acoustic modification:- the inner vane of the outermost primary has a  very strange, tongue-like extension (see Figure p. 673), which causes the wing to produce a whistle. It would be very desirable if other observers can confirm my idea with other Anseriformes, that I have not had access to in my studies !

So it is evident that this modification is not found in Dendrocygna bicolor as mentioned in the Birds of South Asia (See a picture of the primaries here). To add to this, the idea that this notch even produces sound needs to be questioned and examined more carefully. It seems highly suspect, particularly because notches and emargination of primaries are quite common. It turns out that the next two primaries have a notch in them. It seems quite unlikely that any significant whistling sound is actually produced by this structure. The only other work that actually questions this idea is from 1922 and is from an amazing four volume work on the "A Natural history of the Ducks" by John C. Phillips. On page 151 - Phillips says "A characteristic peculiar to this species is a projection on the inner web of the outermost primary which Heinroth (1911) pictures, and describes as producing a loud whistling sound during flight. It is remarkable that no observations made in thc field have brought out this peculiarity, but it may be that the loud voice obscures this sound." It is interesting how certain ideas like this from 1911 get perpetuated by repeated citation without actual examination. And it is even more surprising that researchers fail to examine the original literature and take secondary citations for granted. Hopefully the efforts by the Biodiversity Heritage Library to make these and other originals works available to ordinary citizens will raise the standards of research particularly within academia.

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