Spring Brings Citizen Scientists Together

Spring buds, Flickr CC-2.0 image by Eugenijus Radlinskas

Last week, my almost-three-year-old daughter glanced out the window and cheerfully shouted, “Look, the tree is making leaves!

The first buds on the branch or leaves in the garden, the first purple martin or monarch butterfly or hummingbird…these little changes in our natural surroundings grab our attention and herald the arrival of spring.

Each first sighting triggers a kind of awakening. “Every spring is the only spring, a perpetual astonishment,” wrote Ellis Peters.

In order to take in spring’s sweep across the land (and seas), however, you often need a higher vantage point — perhaps a hilltop or an aerial photo.

Or sometimes, with just a few shared observations by Citizen Scientists, a map, and a little imagination, you can begin to appreciate spring’s steady march.

Here are a couple of sites reporting the first sighting of birds migrating northwards:

Purple martin sightings (as of 4/1/2010)

Purple Martin scout map

Hummingbirds (as of 4/1/2010)

Hummingbird first sightings as of April 1, 2010

Several migration sites, including one for hummingbirds, can be found at Journey North, a wonderful educational resource.

For the flora-minded, Project Budburst collects observations of “phenophases” of trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses.

Some Citizen Science projects I find intriguing are the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Celebrate Urban Birds and a study of American eels in the Hudson River.

Also, check out the the USA National Phenology Network for more about phenology (“nature’s calendar”) and climate change.

Monarchs resting on rocks, Flickr CC image by Pendens Proditor

Monarch butterflies

Of special note this spring is the monarch butterfly. The monarchs have begun their journeys along several migration corridors and can travel thousands of miles. But according to several news articles (here, here, and here), the monarch population faces a dire situation.

This year may be one of the worst for the monarch butterfly, experts are reporting. Severe hailstorms in Mexico (one of the monarch’s winter home) followed by fifteen inches of rain has left the population decimated by up to 50 percent this year. Add to that the ongoing issue of habitat destruction, and the future of the monarch begins to look a little shaky.

If you’re interested, check out Monarch Watch and participate in the Monarch Waystation Program (also here) to create, conserve and protect monarch habitats.

Citizen Science works

The convergence of backyard naturalists, academics, and the internet is fueling the growth of Citizen Science, which involves the participation of nonscientists in research, including the crowdsourcing of observations of nature.

From the News and Observer:

Nonscientists like Bragg [Benton Bragg, who is helping out with a barred owl study] throughout North Carolina and the nation are participating in a smorgasbord of projects, studying birds, amphibians, plants, mammals, chemistry, dinosaurs, climate change, light pollution, the galaxy – the list goes on.

Citizen science involves nonscientist volunteers gathering and reporting data for scientific studies. Less often, they help analyze it. Participating is a two-way street. It not only funnels data to scientists faster than they could accumulate it using only trained researchers, it also gives citizens a window to science.

An article in BioScience magazine (March 2008) asks “Citizen Scientists, Can Volunteers Do Real Research?

In the end, what have citizen scientists achieved? Has their labor actually helped advance scientific knowledge? Yes, says Bonney [Rick Bonney of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology], pointing, for example, to complete and accurate maps of the breeding ranges of every North American bird. And with the help of volunteers in gathering data, researchers have been able to track the progress of conjunctivitis in house finches, the first time scientists have ever followed a disease in a wild animal. Citizen scientists have also collected data that helped scientists develop guidelines for land managers to preserve habitat.

Treehugger also published a nice piece on Citizen Science last year:

Where Big Science works by putting a few very highly trained people with a lot of money at their disposal in charge of rare and expensive machines, Citizen Science works by sending nearly anyone you can grab into the field with a simple task, simple equipment to do it, and a willingness on the scientists’ part to sort through the results. It’s messy, at times, but it works.

Beyond supporting research, Citizen Science projects promote scientific literacy and conservation efforts. Citizen Science encourages individuals, families, and schools to engage with local nature; it can reveal the ways in which nature’s networks connect communities across the continent. In this era of both global environmental change and “nature deficit disorder,” Citizen Science offers a way for folks to take steps forward together.

Happy spring!

Other projects

Birders World lists over 100 projects for birders interested in participating in citizen science.

National Projects (a sidebar to the News & Observer article):

Firefly Watch: Project based at Boston Museum of Science. www.mos.org/fireflywatch
Frog Watch USA:
Learn about wetlands and help conserve amphibians by reporting the calls of local frogs and toads. www.aza.org/frogwatch
Project BudBurst:
Track the first leafing, first flower and first fruit ripening of a diversity of trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses in your area. www.windows.ucar.edu/citizen_science/budburst/index.php
Open Dinosaur Project:
Help create an online database of dinosaur limb bone measurements used to investigate questions of dinosaur evolution. opendino.wordpress.com
Great Backyard Birdcount:
Annual program to identify and count birds where they live over four days in mid-February. www.birdsource.org/gbbc
Project FeederWatch:
Put up a bird feeder, watch the birds that use it and report your sightings online. www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw
Report bird sightings to help create an online globally accessible database showing bird distribution and abundance. ebird.org
Galaxy Zoo:
Global program for armchair astronomers to sort and classify a million different images of galaxies according to shape. www.galaxyzoo.org

More projects: ScienceForCitizens.net or www.eenorthcarolina.org/presentations/citizenscience.pdf

[Note: The examples listed leaned heavily to the Eastern United States. Any suggestions for projects or migration maps from other parts of the Americas (or the Earth) are welcomed!]

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