Sources of Measurement Error, Misclassification Error, and Bias in Auditory Avian Point Count Data

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Abstract

Avian point counts vary over space and time due to actual differences in abundance, differences in detection probabilities among counts, and differences associated with measurement and misclassification errors. However, despite the substantial time, effort, and money expended counting birds in ecological research and monitoring, the validity of common survey methods remains largely untested, and there is still considerable disagreement over the importance of estimating detection probabilities associated with individual counts. Most practitioners assume that current methods for estimating detection probability are accurate, and that observer training obviates the need to account for measurement and misclassification errors in point count data. Our approach combines empirical data from field studies with field experiments using a system for simulating avian census conditions when most birds are identified by sound. Our objectives are to: identify the factors that influence detection probability on auditory point counts, quantify the bias and precision of current sampling methods, and find new applications of sampling theory and methodologies that produce practical improvements in the quality of bird census data.

We have found that factors affecting detection probabilities on auditory counts, such as ambient noise, can cause substantial biases in count data. Distance sampling data are subject to substantial measurement error due to the difficulty of estimating the distance to a sound source when visual cues are lacking. Misclassification errors are also inherent in time of detection methods due to the difficulty of accurately identifying and localizing sounds during a count. Factors affecting detection probability, measurement errors, and misclassification errors are important but often ignored components of the uncertainty associated with point-count-based abundance estimates.