Mother Nature Has Many Fields of Study For Citizen Scientists

By Candace Page and Adam Silverman
ADDISON, VT–Claire Trombley, 12, of Starksboro, VT, climbed out of bed at 5 one recent October morning and was at her station by sunrise.

Within three hours she had helped attach aluminum leg bands to 67 tiny songbirds trapped in fine mesh nets on the banks of marshy Dead Creek. Around her, other banders and their helpers opened soft cloth bags holding the birds and recorded species name, sex, age, weight and wingspan on large grid-ruled sheets.

The amateur naturalists of the Dead Creek Bird Observatory are among a growing group of “citizen scientists” across the U.S. who help professional researchers unravel mysteries of the natural world while enjoying a closer connection to nature.

Quantifying the number of citizen scientists is difficult because the pursuit is so grass-roots, said Sandra Henderson, director of citizen science at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO. But, she says, the number is large and growing.

“There are millions if you use the broadest definition,” she said. “It’s everything from school kids collecting data to interested laypeople.”

The pursuit is gaining popularity, now, in large part, because of the Internet and its ability to provide instant interaction and immediate results, said John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, NY. As amateurs and the researchers they assist realize the potential, and people see that their contributions matter, Fitzpatrick said, the partnership is poised to explode.

“Opportunities for citizens to supply data are limitless,” he said. “We have the capacity to be measuring the pulse of biological systems worldwide in real time,” he said. “Never before were humans able to do this.”

Citizen scientists count birds, chase butterflies, test water quality, observe the behavior of loons and falcons, follow the tracks of bobcat, bear and moose, and perform countless other tasks. As they document their observations, they build a body of scientific data no single researcher could collect in a lifetime, Fitzpatrick said.

Much of their information is fed to national databases, including systems maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Cornell lab. “Citizen scientists are so incredibly valuable because you can marshal an army of them. They do the work at the ground level,” said Chris Rimmer, director of the Vermont Center for EcoStudies in Norwich, VT, which works with more than a thousand volunteers to answer research questions. “The information they collect can then be used in a very powerful way to achieve conservation goals.”

One of the earliest examples of organized citizen science began in 1900, when an ornithologist suggested counting birds instead of shooting them in traditional holiday hunts. Thus was born the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which has continued uninterrupted for 107 years. The project has produced tangible results, said Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society in Washington.

Audubon announced this year that populations of dozens of common bird species—including Bobwhites, Meadowlarks, hummingbirds and the Vermont state bird, the Hermit Thrush—have seen dramatic population decreases during the past 40 years, in some cases up to 80%.

The report’s underpinning was four decades of Christmas Bird Count data, without which the conclusions might never have been reached, Butcher said.

Last year, about 55,000 volunteers in all 50 states, plus Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America, took part in the count, and each year has seen more participants than the last, Butcher said. Cornell University counts 100,000 volunteers who submit 50,000 reports each month to the ornithology lab, Fitzpatrick said.

Such widespread involvement makes the research possible, Butcher said.

“Nobody could afford to pay people to go out and get that information,” he said. “A lot of them don’t believe it has anything to do with science whatsoever. They like seeing birds and hanging out with their friends.”

In that way, citizen scientists say, they enrich their time outdoors.

“Tracking really does open up your eyes to the natural environment,” said Auriel Gray of Burlington, VT, who monitors wildlife along a 2-mile route in Greensboro. “We see so much more now.” –USA Today