Citizen science has been around for centuries. John James Audubon, for example, traveled the country sketching and painting all the birds of North America with precise detail. Henry David Thoreau kept journals of bird and animal sightings and the timing of flower blooms and leaf drops. And even more recently, weather watchers have collected information on snow and rainfall information for the National Weather Service and local TV and radio stations. All this information has been compiled by ordinary people with nothing more than perhaps a strong interest in the subject.
Since the development and expansion of the internet, citizen science has exploded. Often led by professional scientists, projects are created with public participation in mind, and analysis is practically instantaneous. The Great Backyard Bird Count is an example of a very successful citizen science project. Led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the GBBC was held this year on February 12-15. Some 160,000 people from 130 countries counted 5,689 species – the most detailed snapshot ever of bird populations around the world.
It was actually the GBBC that first exposed me to citizen science. I participated this year – without, incidentally, spotting a single bird that cold, cold day – and it has developed into an interest in similar projects near and far.
While the official GBBC is over for the year, the counting of birds continues. To take part in the GBBC, you have to create an online account with Cornell, which gives you access to all sorts of interactive pages for recording your ornithological findings. And you can sign up easily for next year’s GBBC count, which takes place February 17-20, 2017.
This is actually a Facebook group page, which you can join pretty easily if you live in Maine and love to watch birds. It has about 5,700 members who are very active in spotting and photographing the variety of birds that visit the Pine Tree State.
Since 1983, Maine Audubon has sponsored an annual count to assess the population of one of Maine’s most iconic wildlife species, the loon. Hundreds of people participate, many of whom have volunteered for years. This year, the count will be held July 16th.
Based at San Francisco State University, the Great Sunflower Project is not so much about sunflowers as it is about pollinators. As you probably know, bees are in decline. Scientists are trying to find out why. The Sunflower Project enlists subscribers to count pollinators of all types and record them in an online forum. Though it no longer gives seeds away, the organization encourages the planting of a type of sunflower, Lemon Queen, because they produce a good amount of pollen. The website has a wealth of information about identifying types of bees and how to attract them to your yard.
Another backyard laboratory program, the New England Phenology Program uses hundreds of volunteers across Maine and New Hampshire to track the effects of climate change on plants and wildlife. The key here is that the volunteers are actually trained through a series of webinars and sessions at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Maine Audubon, Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, and other organizations. Participants track such things as growth of milkweed and rockweed, and the nesting of spring robins, so scientists can monitor any changes in the seasons.
Of course, there are many, many more ways you can take part in this global citizen science revolution – just take a quick scan of the web using the keywords “citizen science” and you’ll get the bug, too.