Be a Volunteer for Science
Participants in “citizen science” projects provide valuable data to researchers while gaining an opportunity to get closer to nature
TWELVE-YEAR-OLD Jared Lucky of El Paso, Texas, represents the environmental movement’s hope for the future. For the past three years, Lucky has enlisted in Frogwatch USA™, a joint NWF-U.S. Geological Survey project that uses volunteers to help track amphibian populations across the country. The data he and other Frogwatchers collect are critical to scientists trying to understand why these animals are mysteriously declining.
Lucky submits his data online. He also sends results of frog experiments he’s conducted for school science fairs. One year, he investigated how water quality affects tadpole development, using vinegar to simulate acid rain. “It was mind-blowing,” says Lucky. “The control tadpole developed in 43 days. The acid tadpole wasn’t a complete frog until day 85.”
Frogwatch is a prime example of “citizen science”—projects that recruit ordinary people to gather data scientists incorporate into their research. Originating with the globe-trotting amateur naturalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, citizen science today attracts volunteers with a wide variety of interests. You can, for example, help count whooping cranes with the Platte River Trust in Nebraska, study sage grouse breeding sites with NWF in several western states, monitor butterflies with Vermont’s VerMonitors, or track West Nile virus in California while getting your daily exercise with the Davis Bicycle Bird Biologists.
One of the largest efforts is Project FeederWatch, operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Since the program was launched in 1987, thousands of FeederWatch volunteers have submitted more than a million data sets reporting on numbers and species of birds that visit backyard feeders nationwide.
“Even watching common birds can yield uncommon results,” says Project Leader David Bonter. Beyond documenting changes in numbers for certain species over time, FeederWatchers have discovered, for example, that some hummingbird species thought to migrate south to the Tropics each year can also be found overwintering in the southeastern United States. And when house finches in the East started showing up with an eye disease in 1994, FeederWatchers were asked to look for unhealthy birds. The information they collected helped Cornell scientists determine how birds were affected by the disease.
Another Cornell effort, the Birdhouse Network, employs citizen scientists to document the breeding habits of cavity-nesting birds (birdhouses are man-made cavities). Project Leader Tina Phillips says that during the nine years it has been operating, the program has made a big impression on children in particular. At Caldwell County Elementary School in Princeton, Kentucky, for example, Library Media Specialist Tammie Sanders put up a few bluebird boxes. “The kids were so thrilled to watch nesting birds,” Phillips says, “it sparked them to invite a state environmental educator to talk about the decline of ospreys because of DDT. Then, during the talk, the kids emptied their pockets and said, ‘We want to put up nesting platforms to help ospreys.’” Sanders applied for grants, the kids put up platforms around a nearby lake and the number of ospreys in the area skyrocketed.
NWF Chief Naturalist Craig Tufts is heartened by such stories. “Data suggest that the environmental movement is aging,” he notes. “Young people are just not joining the ranks.” And no wonder: Strictly scheduled and carpooled from one engagement to another, few kids these days are free to roam the outdoors as they once did. “By getting kids outdoors and involved with studying nature, citizen science projects are an excellent solution,” says Tufts. “And they also help answer questions that will impact us all.”
Cynthia Berger wrote about winter birds in the February/March issue. To learn more about Frogwatch, see www.nwf.org/frogwatchUSA