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People in your neighborhood gather valuable data for National Zoo scientists and other researchers to learn more about our natural world.
by Jeffrey P. Cohn
Eric Raun’s backyard in Silver Spring, Maryland, is a veritable ornithological laboratory. Raun points to a path between two trees where Smithsonian National Zoo scientists string mist
nets once a year to capture and study birds. He fingers tall, billowing oat grasses, whose seeds various birds devour. Bees flit from one dogbane, milkweed, and wild bergamot flower to another. Plentiful insects attract birds. Generations of
birds have built nests to raise their young in the
surrounding native bushes and shrubs.
“Birds get me out of myself,” says Raun, a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs lawyer and long-time amateur birdwatcher. “I spend a lot of time back here, so I wanted to know what the birds I saw there were doing.” By letting his backyard serve as a natural laboratory, Raun is acting as a citizen scientist.
The term “citizen scientist” refers to anyone who helps to gather data for a scientific research effort. Citizen scientists are not paid for their work, nor are they necessarily even scientists, although some may be scientists or science teachers and their students. Others may be zoo or conservation group members, bird watchers, backpackers, or hikers with at least some familiarity with the scientific process.
Most, however, are amateurs who volunteer to assist ecological research because they love the outdoors, are concerned about the environment, and want to do something to help.
|Right in their backyard: Mary, Margaret, and Thomas Bacon, of Berryville, Virginia, gather data for a butterfly survey. (William McShea/NZP)|
Whatever their background, citizen scientists are often asked to use sophisticated equipment and techniques; for example, to monitor air and water quality, document when plants grow,
bloom, and die, and observe when birds or other animals migrate through an area. Typically, citizen scientists do not analyze data or write scientific papers, but they are essential for gathering the information for those analyses and reports.
Increasingly, National Zoo and other wildlife researchers are turning to volunteers in the conduct of field studies. These citizen scientists provide the data that scientists analyze to distinguish trends and reach conclusions that may influence how we view, manage, and conserve wildlife and wild places.
Citizen scientists like Raun are vital to Pete Marra, a Zoo ornithologist and research scientist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Marra heads the Smithsonian’s Neighborhood Nestwatch program, which invites people to
help answer questions regarding the survival of backyard bird populations. In addition to Raun, who has participated in Nestwatch since 2000, people from some 275 households in the Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Annapolis areas have volunteered for the program. Together, these citizen scientists provide the data that let Zoo scientists compare survival rates and nesting success of birds in urban and suburban habitats with those living on farms and in forested areas.
“Using volunteers is a really neat way to help people learn about science and wildlife,” Marra says. “There is no way I could ever afford to hire enough field technicians or recruit enough students to cover such a large area. Using volunteers is the only way we could ever address large-scale [research] questions.”
A Growing Trend
Researchers have long used volunteers to help conduct their studies. The practice goes back at least to 1900, when the National Audubon Society launched its annual Christmas bird
count. About 60,000 to 80,000 volunteers now participate in that survey. While no one knows for sure how many studies use volunteers, Cornell Lab of Ornithology researchers who track citizen science have found more than 200 such studies. Some observers think there may be thousands. Working with citizen scientists is “a growing worldwide phenomenon,” says Jennifer Shirk, a project leader at the Cornell lab. “We’ve
just begun to scratch the surface.”
Using volunteers lets scientists gather data on a larger geographic scale and over a longer time period than is possible in using more traditional methods of research, says Karen Oberhauser, an assistant professor of wildlife and conservation biology at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul.
Moreover, by participating in field research, more people get involved with the natural world as well as with the scientific process. “Our objective,” says David Ucko, deputy director of
the National Science Foundation’s Division of Research on Learning, which funds citizen science projects, “is to increase public awareness of and participation in science.”
And the beauty of citizen science is how simple and accessible it is to participate. “We want to involve everybody from grade-schoolers to grandmas,” says Brian Mitchell, a National Park
Service ecologist who heads a bird monitoring study in Woodstock, Vermont.
Ricki Ferrence spends her free time helping researchers capture photos of wildlife. Ferrence is an education specialist at the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia. In addition to her paying job, Ferrence volunteers in two studies headed by Zoo wildlife ecologist William McShea. One seeks to document the mammals that live along the 575-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia—including Shenandoah National Park—while the other looks at the effects of different land-use patterns on butterfly numbers and diversity in the area.
“I love being a citizen scientist,” Ferrence declares. “I love hiking in the wild. I love being out in the woods. [McShea’s mammal study] is a good excuse to get me out of the office and into Shenandoah National Park and on the Appalachian
Trail. I love it that someone is taking my data and making use of it.”
Her fellow citizen scientist, Trudy Phillips, agrees. A retired chemical engineer from Lynchburg, Virginia, and another McShea volunteer, Phillips is gratified that the data she gathers is vital for “knowing what is going on out there.”
McShea’s mammal study is trying to find out. It involves attaching digital cameras with motion sensors to trees at selected places along the Appalachian Trail or on nearby smaller animal trails. The cameras record what animals have passed by. So far this year alone, Ferrence’s cameras have snapped photos of coyotes, red and gray foxes, deer, black bears, rabbits, perhaps a bobcat (Ferrence isn’t sure given that the animal was partially obscured), and three hikers bending over to see what the strange-looking black box contained.
|Tree-mounted cameras in Shenandoah National Park capture passing wildlife such as black bears and white-tailed deer.|
Ferrence is responsible for two sections of the Appalachian Trail study area, each with one of the 50 cameras McShea and his volunteers have strapped to trees. She checks the cameras once a month for seven months, changes the batteries and memory cards, and moves the cameras from one tree to another. She even tests each camera by moving in front of it to make it take her picture.
Sometimes complications arise. Once, two fellow volunteers were hiking through thick brush toward a camera site when they heard loud grunts ahead of them. They looked up in
time to see a 350-pound black bear clambering up a tall oak tree. Figuring it was a female with nearby cubs, the volunteers decided that discretion was better than valor. They retreated
quickly, returning only several hours later after the bear had left.
McShea’s mammal study is part of a larger effort by individual scientists, government agencies, and conservation groups to monitor environmental trends along the entire 2,175 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Like McShea’s study, the so-called Appalachian Trail MEGA-Transect (MEGA as in MainE-to-GeorgiA) project depends on citizen scientists. Many are members of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, whose members helped create and maintain the trail.
Beyond mammals and the Appalachian Trail, McShea has recruited 50-some volunteers to monitor butterflies in their backyards. “You can go out with your lawn chair, a cold drink, and newspaper and record what butterflies go by,” he says. Many of the study’s citizen scientists were drawn from local plant and garden societies, but they did not have to be butterfly experts. McShea and his aides train the volunteers, provide them with field guides to identify the butterflies, check their findings to verify the data’s accuracy, and give them T-shirts for their participation in the study.
Back in Washington, Alan Peters, the National Zoo’s curator of invertebrates and education for animal programs, heads the D.C. part of McShea’s butterfly study. “There are a lot of butterfly enthusiasts,” Peters says. “Butterflies are great. They are beautiful and have charisma. And you can see them during the daytime. Whole families can participate in the study.”
|Observing butterflies is one of the simplest ways to participate in citizen science. (Jessie Cohen, NZP)|
Although still ongoing, the study’s preliminary findings indicate that the greatest butterfly diversity exists on agricultural lands, especially old farm fields. The next best habitats for butterflies are urban and suburban backyards. Perhaps not surprisingly, the least favorable for butterflies are forested areas. The reason, McShea says, is that fewer wildflowers grow in the shade of trees and bushes.
Beyond the science, Peters has another purpose in mind for using volunteers. Trained as a museum educator as well as a zoologist, Peters sees the butterfly study as a chance to educate people about wildlife in their backyards. “We
can blend science with activism,” he says. “Having volunteers generates a lot of conversation about the environment. Our volunteers gain an increased awareness of how they can enhance the environment in their backyard.”
Watch and Learn
Backyard monitoring is also a key element of Pete Marra’s Nestwatch study. It focuses on eight birds commonly found in East Coast urban and suburban habitats as well as rural and forested ones—song sparrows, northern cardinals, house wrens, Carolina wrens, catbirds, mockingbirds, robins,
and Carolina chickadees. Raun and the other Nestwatch volunteers help Zoo scientists catch and band the birds, record which ones live in volunteers’ backyards, note when they return the following year, and monitor the birds’ nests and how many of their chicks fledge every year.
“That [information] tells us how long birds live, their survival rates, and their reproductive success,” Marra says. “Those are basic biological indicators that tell us how bird populations are doing. We could never ask such questions and get answers
without our volunteers.” Next, Marra hopes to introduce the Nestwatch program into schools.
Like other researchers, Marra has been able to recruit volunteers with virtually no paid advertising. Most of his volunteers are members of Friends of the National Zoo or local bird clubs as well as residents of Silver Spring and Takoma Park, where many of the backyard research sites are located.
From the volunteers’ data, Marra has learned that birds living in urban and suburban backyards are more successful in raising their young than ones living in rural and forested areas. The reason, Marra thinks: Fewer predators, most notably black rat snakes, live close to people in cities and suburbs. Also, fewer chipmunks are found in urban than rural areas, which helps the birds. Usually thought of as nut and seed eaters, chipmunks and other rodents also consume bird
eggs and chicks. But, even if the danger from chipmunks is less in cities and suburbs, that represented by domestic cats and pollution is greater, Marra says.
Contributing to more understanding of the wildlife around us is what motivates Raun as he fine-tunes his backyard habitat. “The data I generated may have been small, but it helped
build a larger data set,” he says. “We now know more about the birds in our backyards.” It all adds up—the many individual contributions of citizen scientists like Raun combine to form a big picture of how our natural world works.
Jeffrey P. Cohn is a longtime contributor to ZooGoer.