Animated GIFs Map The Wonders Of Bird Migration

The interaction design is hardly innovative, but the experience is kind of magical.

Animated GIFs are like the Internet’s version of silent films–the technology behind them is archaic, but they have a certain retro charm. In the right hands, they can even be elegant. These scientific GIF-maps of annual bird migration patterns fall into both categories: They’re like infographics as zoetropes. On one hand, they’re technically bulletproof scientific visualizations of “over 42 million records”; on the other, they’re fleetingly wistful glimpses of the passage of seasons and time.

The Upland Sandpiper

As Nathan Yau curtly notes on Flowing Data, “birds move”–so any infographic about their behavior should have a temporal component. These GIF maps visualize the birds’ seasonal comings-and-goings as a kind of flame that flickers in stuttery, pixelated motion over the landscape of the United States, burns brightly for a couple seconds, and then dissipates.

As a tool for “understanding patterns of bird occurrence at continental scales, [which][/which] has long been one of eBird’s fundamental challenges,” the maps are certainly thorough. But to me they resonate emotionally, much like Scott Thrift’s seasonal clock, “The Present,” does. The eBird maps compress a whole year, a whole continent, and all the majesty of these birds’ thousand-mile journeys, into a few short seconds. It’s awesomely huge and fleetingly small at the same time. The looping GIF format is even poetically appropriate–the birds come and go in their cycles, of their own accord, no way to control it, just sit back and watch.

Yellow-throated Vireo

Thoreauvian rhapsodizing aside, the best thing about animated GIFs, in this age of fragmenting platforms and ever-shifting standards, is that they just work. You don’t have to have an iPad, a smartphone, or even an up-to-date browser for these simple pieces of science communication to do their job. That kind of universal accessibility may not be the kind of thing that wins AIGA awards, but it is, in its own humble way, inspiring.

Read more about the maps at eBird | via Flowing Data] | Top image of an arctic tern, the longest-migrating bird in the world, by Graham Andrew Reid/Shutterstock[/i]


About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.