Keeping citizen scientists happy

2016-11flamm-fest-participants-in-2005

Citizen scientists were recruited by the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (now the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies) to look for Flammulated Owls in the Medicine Bow National Forest in southern Wyoming in the summer of 2005. Mark and I are standing in front of the sign.

Published Nov. 13, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Turning Citizens into Scientists”

Note: The first Wyoming Citizen Science Conference is being held Dec. 1-3, 2016, in Lander. All current and would-be citizen scientists studying birds or any other natural science are welcome. See http://www.wyomingbiodiversity.org.

How to keep a citizen scientist happy

By Barb Gorges

A year after I married my favorite wildlife biologist, he invited me on my first Christmas Bird Count.

It was between minus 25 and minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit that day in southeastern Montana, with snow on the ground. He asked me to take the notes, which meant frequently removing my thick mittens and nearly frostbiting my fingers.

I am happy to report that 33 years later, my husband is the one who takes the notes and the Christmas Bird Count has become a family tradition, from taking our first son at eight months old and continuing now with both sons and their wives joining us.

The Christmas Bird Count started in 1900 and is one of the oldest examples of citizen science, sending ordinary people (most are not wildlife biologists) out to collect data for scientific studies.

In 1999, I signed up for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch and have continued each year. Last season 22,000 people participated. In 2010 I started entering eBird checklists and now I’m one of 327,000 people taking part since 2002. And there are nearly a dozen other, smaller, CLO projects.

It is obvious CLO knows how to keep their citizen scientists happy. Part of it is that they have been at it since 1966. Part of it is they know birdwatchers. That’s because they are birdwatchers themselves.

How do they keep us happy? I made a list based on my own observations—echoed by an academic paper I read later.

First, I am comfortable collecting the data. The instructions are good. They are similar to something I do already: keeping lists of birds I see. The protocol is just a small addition. For instance, in eBird I need to note when and for how long I birded and at least estimate how many of each species I saw. It makes the data more useful to scientists.

Second, I am not alone. The Christmas Bird Count is definitely a group activity, which makes it easy for novice birders to join us. I especially love the tally party potluck when we gather to share what the different groups have seen that day.

Project FeederWatch is more solitary, but these days there are social aspects such as sharing photos online. Over President’s Day weekend when the Great Backyard Bird Count is on, I can see animated maps of data points for each species. On eBird, I can see who has been seeing what at local birding hotspots.

Third, I have access to the data I submitted. Even 33 years later, I can look up my first CBC online and find the list of birds we saw, and verify my memories of how cold it was in December 1983.

The eBird website keeps my life list of birds and where I first saw them (OK, I need to rummage around and see if I can verify my pre-2010 species and enter those). It compiles a list of all the birds I’ve seen in each of my locations over time (89 species from my backyard) and what time of year I’ve seen them. All of my observations are organized and more accessible than if I kept a notebook. And now I can add photos and audio recordings of birds.

A fourth item CLO caters to is the birdwatching community’s competitive streak. I can look on eBird and see who has seen the most species in Wyoming or Laramie County during the calendar year, or who has submitted the most checklists. You can choose a particular location, like your backyard, and compare your species and checklist numbers with other folks in North America, which is instructive and entertaining.

I would take part in the CBC and eBird just because I love an excuse to bird. But the fifth component of a happy citizen scientist is concrete evidence that real scientists are making use of my data. Sometimes multiple years of data are needed, but even reading a little analysis of the current year makes me feel my work was worthwhile and helps me see where my contribution fits in.

What really makes me happy is that I have benefitted from being a citizen scientist. I’m a better birder, a better observer now. I look at things more like a scientist. I appreciate the ebb and flow of nature more.

If you have an interest in birds, I’d be happy to help you sort through your citizen science options. Call or email me or check my archival website listed below, or go to http://www.birds.cornell.edu.