Perhaps you’re an avid birder, or maybe you want to do something about noxious weeds. You might have a telescope, and you spend your nights looking at the sky. Or maybe you drove your parents crazy (as I did) bringing home bugs and rocks and frogs and snakes—and you still haven’t outgrown your fascination. Having a hobby is fun, but turning it into something more significant is even better. No matter what your interest, you can put your knowledge and skills to good use as a citizen scientist.
As a birder, of course I’m more aware of bird-related opportunities. I’ve previously mentioned eBird, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s database of bird observations. The Cornell Lab, in cooperation with National Audubon and Bird Studies Canada, also sponsors other ventures including Project FeederWatch, the Great Backyard Bird Count, NestWatch. Then there’s Audubon’s new Hummingbirds at Home (which started last summer.)
As you might guess, most of these projects involved counting birds— birds seen on field trips, birds at feeders, nesting birds, etc. Why is this helpful? Birds tend to move around a lot. There aren’t enough ornithologists in the world to keep tabs on every shift in population, but there are a lot of birders out looking for birds.
By enlisting birding enthusiasts, scientists get an overview of fluctuations in bird populations. That helps them answer questions about the influence of weather and/or climate change, the impact of diseases such as West Nile, the effect of habitat destruction, and more. This in turn allows policy makers to make wise decisions.
ProjectFeederWatch “has enlisted more than 20,000 people from every state and province to amass more than 1.5 million checklists. The count period started last month, but it’s not too late to get involved.
The Great Backyard Bird Count takes place every February. Birdwatchers across the world count the number and species of birds at their feeders. This data is compiled and compared to previous counts.
NestWatch allows us to “discover safe ways to find and monitor nests, build nest boxes, and contribute to the knowledge base about nesting birds.”
National Audubon conducts the extremely popular Christmas Bird Count every year. This year the count dates range from December 14 through January 5. As their site explains, “From feeder-watchers and field observers to count compilers and regional editors, each of the citizen scientists who takes part in the Christmas Bird Count makes an enormous contribution to conservation.” I joined our local count last Saturday, and I’ll be sure to tell you all about it in an upcoming post.
Bluebird Trails: Due to habitat destruction, bluebird populations are at risk. They nest in cavities such as the ones found in dead trees, and fewer and fewer dead trees are left standing. Volunteers can help by establishing and monitoring a series of bluebird nest boxes, called a bluebird trail.
If birds aren’t your thing, there are still plenty of places to plug in.
The EarthWatch Institute’s mission is “to engage people worldwide in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment.” Projects are scattered all over the world (they currently support about 60 projects in 40 countries), so you can choose to work locally or take the trip of a lifetime. Once onsite, you “join leading scientists working on crucial environmental research projects.” There are no special qualifications, just a desire to volunteer. Learn more at.
Zooniverse is owned by the Citizen Science Alliance. I got excited when I clicked on this website—they have projects in so many fields, I didn’t know where to begin! Disciplines include astronomy, ecology, cell biology, archeology, and climate science, and you can actually participate in the research.
Astronomy is one of the sciences where amateurs can make genuine contributions to scientific research. I always thought you had to have access to a huge telescope, such as at Palomar or even Hubble, but it turns out that isn’t true. To give one example, professional astronomers don’t have the time or the resources to monitor every variable star. The American Association of Variable Star Observers has gathered data on variable stars for educational and professional analysis since 1911. Get involved by visiting their Citizen Sky website.
BugGuide.Net is an online community of naturalists who share observations of arthropods (insects, spiders, and other joint-legged animals). Amateurs and professional researchers also contribute to the analysis.
This list is just a start; there are countless other ways to volunteer. Try Googling “citizen science” along with your chosen field of interest. You might be amazed at what pops up.