Citizen science makes difference

Citizen Scientist - cover

“Citizen Science” by Mary Ellen Hannibal, published 2016, recognizes contributions of volunteers collecting data.

Published May 14, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Citizen science meets the test of making a difference”

By Barb Gorges

Birdwatchers have been at the forefront of citizen science for a long time, starting with the Christmas Bird Count in 1900.

Today, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is leading the way in using technology to expand bird counting around the globe. Meanwhile, other citizen science projects collect information on a variety of phenomena.

But is citizen science really science? This question was asked last December at the first Wyoming Citizen Science Conference.

The way science works is a scientist poses a question in the form of a hypothesis. For instance, do robins lay more eggs at lower elevations than at higher elevations? The scientist and his assistants can go out and find nests and count eggs to get an answer [and no, I don’t know if anyone has studied this].

However, there are hypotheses that would be more difficult to prove without a reservoir of data that was collected without a research question in mind. For instance, Elizabeth Wommack, curator and collections manager of vertebrates at the University of Wyoming Museum of Vertebrates, studied the variation in the number of white markings on the outer tail feathers of male kestrels. She visited collections of bird specimens at museums all over the country to gather data.

Some kestrels have lots of white spots, some have none. Are the differences caused by geography? [Many animal traits are selected for (meaning because of the trait, the animal survives and passes on the trait to more offspring) on a continuum. It could be north to south or dry to wet habitat or some other geographic feature.]

Or perhaps it was sexual selection—females preferred spottier male tail feathers. Or did the amount of spotting lead directly to improved survival?

Wommack discovered none of her hypotheses could show statistical significance, information just as important as proving the hypotheses true. But at least Wommack learned something without having to “collect” or kill more kestrels.

Some citizen science projects collect data to test specific hypotheses. However, others, like eBird and iNaturalist collect data without a hypothesis in mind, akin to putting specimens in museum drawers like those kestrels. The data is just waiting for someone to ask a question.

I know I’ve gone to eBird with my own questions such as when and where sandhill cranes are seen in Wyoming. Or when the last time was I reported blue jays in our yard.

To some scientists, data like eBird’s, collected by the public, might be suspect. How can they trust lay people to report accurately? At this point, so many people are reporting the birds they see to eBird that statistical credibility is high. (However, eBird still does not know a lot about birds in Wyoming and we need more of you to report your sightings at http://ebird.org.)

Are scientists using eBird data? They are, and papers are being published. CLO itself recently published a study in Biological Conservation, an international journal for the discipline of conservation biology. [See http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320716301689.] Their study tracked requests for raw data from eBird for 22 months, 2012 through 2014.

They found that the data was used in 159 direct conservation actions. That means no waiting years for papers to be published before identifying problems like downturns in population. These actions affected birds through management of habitat, siting of disturbances like power plants, decisions about listing as threatened or endangered. CLO also discovered citizens were using the data to discuss development and land use issues in their own neighborhoods.

CLO’s eBird data is what is called open access data. No one pays to access it. None of us get paid to contribute it. Our payment is the knowledge that we are helping land and wildlife managers make better decisions. There’s a lot “crowd sourced” abundance and distribution numbers can tell them.

Citizen science isn’t often couched in terms of staving off extinction. Recently I read “Citizen Scientist, Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction,” by Mary Ellen Hannibal, published in 2016. She gave me a new view.

Based in California, Hannibal uses examples of citizen science projects there that have made a difference. She looks back at the early non-scientists like Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck who sampled the Pacific Coast, leaving a trail of data collection sites that were re-sampled 85 years later. She also looks to Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson, who gives citizen science his blessing. At age 87, he continues to share his message that we should leave half the biosphere to nature—for our own good.

Enjoy spring bird migration. Share your bird observations. The species you save may be the one to visit you in your own backyard again.

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Project FeederWatch needs you!

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpeckers are more likely to visit if a suet or seed cake is available. Photo by Errol Taskin, courtesy of Project FeederWatch.

Published Dec. 15, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Project FeederWatch needs you.”

2014 Update: One more reminder: If you haven’t signed up yet, do it now.

By Barb Gorges

OK, listen up, people. I want YOU for Project FeederWatch.

While I can’t draft you like Uncle Sam, I would still like to recruit you.

Project FeederWatch is one of the citizen science programs of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This is the 27th season backyard birdwatchers in North America have contributed data about the birds that visit their feeders during the winter. The information is becoming increasingly important to scientists, yet it is so easy to submit, even a child can do it—and children are welcome.

It takes only a glance at the participant map to see that the Great Plains region is vastly under-observed. Even in a populated place like Cheyenne, the last few years there has been only one red dot—me, and possibly someone else too close by to show up as a separate dot. A few years back several dots showed up across the city.

I’d hate for the scientists to consider my backyard typical, or to have them completely drop our area in studies because of insufficient data, so that’s why I’m inviting you to join me. Besides, it’s fun, and it doesn’t have to take much time. Also, like me, you can learn a lot about the birds in your backyard.

Here’s what to do:

Visit the Project FeederWatch website, www.feederwatch.org.

Go to the “About” tab for an introduction and a step by step explanation of how to participate. Under the “Learn” tab, you can find out about feeding and identifying our local birds. The “Community” tab is where you’ll find tips and photos from other participants and the FeederWatch cam.

At the “Explore” tab you’ll find a bibliography of studies that used PFW data and nifty animated maps.

Next, click on the “Home” tab and then the Join Now button. Yes, it costs $15 ($12 if you are already a CLO member), but it’s a contribution to bird conservation. You have the option of paying over the phone, 1-800-843-2473, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. ET (6 a.m. – 3 p.m. Mountain Time).

All new participants get a handbook, a calendar and a full-color poster of common feeder birds in the mail. You may send your data online or mail in tally sheets at the end of the season.

Once you receive your identification number, you can log in through the “Your Data” tab. Set up your count site by describing it: number of trees and shrubs, bird feeders and birdbaths, and so forth. Sprinkling black-oil sunflower seeds on the ground where they can be seen from a window is perfectly acceptable.

Scientific protocol requires selecting your count days in advance. Each set of two consecutive days must be at least five days apart. Mark and I have chosen Saturday and Sunday each week.

It’s OK if you miss some of those count days. Project FeederWatch officials don’t expect you to stay home for the whole season, which is early November through early April. You can sign up after the season has started.

It’s also not necessary to sit by the window continuously. Mark and I leave pencil and paper on the table in front of the window, and whenever we are in the vicinity, we check and see if there any new species for the current count days, or more individuals of any species than previously recorded.

The other bit of protocol is that you only count the birds you can see at any given time. You can’t add the 15 house sparrows you saw in the afternoon to the 10 you saw in the morning. You can only record the largest number you saw at one time.

Record the high and low daylight temperatures over the two days. We use the weather reports published the next day in this paper, figuring the coldest temperatures are pretty close to dawn.

What do I have to show for 14 years of submitting data? With the newly redesigned website, I can see very colorful graphs for each of the 25 species I’ve observed. I know that 11 of those seasons we’ve had goldfinches and that 2004 was the first winter we had any Eurasian collared-doves—and only twice.

But mostly, by participating, I find satisfaction in knowing that “my birds” are contributing to scientific knowledge.

While the current season has already begun, it isn’t too late for you to share that satisfied feeling, or even provide it for someone else as a gift.

Project FeederWatch relies on citizen scientists

Project FeederWatch calendar

Each Project FeederWatch participant receives a calendar to help keep track of count days. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Dec. 9, 1999, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Project FeederWatch relies on citizen scientists.”
2014 Update: Project FeederWatch is still going strong. Check it out at http://feederwatch.org/ and sign up.  It’s $15 if you are a Cornell Lab of Ornithology member, $18 if you are bot.
By Barb Gorges
This winter I am one of over 13,000 “citizen scientists.”
What that means is that though I hold only a bachelor of science degree and have never worn a white lab coat, I too can contribute to scientific research. So can you.
Bird watchers have a propensity to quantify their hobby. Some people keep life lists and some people keep backyard lists of the birds they see. This winter I’ll be keeping track of the birds that visit my backyard feeders.
I heard about Project FeederWatch a few years ago when the National Audubon Society and the famous (in the bird world any way) Cornell Lab of Ornithology started a new venture called BirdSource, which sponsors several kinds of bird studies. What I didn’t know is that PFW started in Ontario in the 1970s. Do you suppose those Canadian winters forced them to find this form of entertainment?
From November through March, PFW studies the ebb and flow of bird species that use feeders. I missed the first reporting season, but that’s OK. It’s even all right to miss some others if something comes up on scheduled counting days.
If I were to submit my data in the traditional data entry, computer-readable format, I would be choosing two consecutive days each two-week reporting period. But I decided to go the on-line route which allows me to report every week. Picking two consecutive days at least five days apart then leaves me with weekends, in my case.

bird feeder

A squirrel-proof feeder filled with black oil sunflower seed attracts House Finches and a House Sparrow for a Project FeederWatch count. Photo by Barb Gorges

To sign up, I could send the $15 registration fee by mail or e-mail, however I chose to call in with my credit card. In return I got a poster, handbook, data entry book and an i.d. number. The fee may defray expenses as much as make people more apt to carry through–who wants to waste money already invested?
Besides entering information about the birds I see in my backyard, I’ve also described my set-up and at the end of the season I’ll describe what and how much I fed the birds.
All of my data gets compiled with everyone else’s. On the web I can look up animated maps (really!) that show sightings of each feeder species from month to month or year to year starting in 1992. I begin to realize that the fickle pine siskins might not have been boycotting just my feeder one year, but that for some reason most of them headed to another part of the country.
Ornithologists couldn’t possibly collect as much data themselves as we “citizen scientists” can. But they can use  our data to study the movement of feeder birds in the winter, their overall population changes and their food and habitat preferences. A related study has been the transmission of diseases between birds. The handbook gives the descriptions of various mainly house finch diseases (don’t read these right after reading).
Of course, every ardent birder’s favorite aspect of their hobby is reporting rare birds. It’s too bad the tundra swan Jim and Carol Hecker saw at Lions Park two days before Thanksgiving can’t count. I wonder, if someone put out cracked corn at the lake, could it be claimed as a feeder site? Looks like water fowl have to be written in.
Much of the interesting information about PFW in the handbook is also available at the website. The website though, has bird descriptions and animated maps. If you don’t own a computer, use one at the library. It isn’t too late to sign up to be a FeederWatcher.
If a once-a-year commitment is more your style, find out about the annual Christmas Bird Count.