I recently sat in a fifth-grade classroom listening to the students discuss the definition of science. Most of the responses were about experiments they did in that block of time in school called ''Science.'' There was talk of moldy bread, volcanoes and plants in closets. The students didn't talk about making systematic observations, looking for patterns and verifying theories through testing but that's what they were doing.
We often think of science as something done by scientists and only scientists. ''Doing'' science requires one to go to school for a long time and take somewhat intimidating classes like statistics and research methods and also specialize in a subject. That is true for most of us who want to make science a career. However, there are opportunities for everyone to participate in the gathering of facts through citizen science projects.
The name is fairly descriptive of the process. Non-scientists record their observations and measurements about a certain topic, species or event and submit their data. No scientist can be in all the places they want to gather information about their subject. With a little training, citizen scientists are the extended eyes and ears of the primary researcher. Scientists then have a wealth of data they can use to ask and answer questions, look for patterns and draw conclusions about the natural world.
For the Great Backyard Bird Count you can count birds in one place, like your backyard or you can count birds as you walk a trail.
Photo by Jennifer Schlick
There are citizen-science projects that gather data about fireflies and dragonflies, water quality and weather, amphibians and aliens. If you are interested in birds, a quick look at Cornell Lab of Ornithology website lists 11 citizen-science projects. You can count birds at your feeder, track pigeons in urban areas or monitor nest boxes. You may have participated in (or remember the article about) the Christmas Bird Count in December. This one-day event, in its 112th year, is the longest running citizen-science project in the world. Next weekend marks the 15th annual Great Backyard Bird Count. It is a four-day event running from Friday, Feb. 17 to Monday, Feb. 20. Bird watchers of all ages and skill levels can participate.
If you are thinking that you don't have enough expertise to identify and count birds, you probably know more birds that you think. For example, what name would you give to a bright red bird with a large orange beak and mohawk-style feathers on its head? When I was young and they perched on our pine tree in the backyard, I called them Christmas tree birds, but most people call them a Northern Cardinal. And if there was a bird you couldn't identify, you don't have to record it. There is an option on the record sheet to note that you saw more birds than you could identify.
During the Great Backyard Bird Count you can count for as little as 15 minutes on one day or as long as you like all four days. Regardless of the time that you counted, you write down the highest number of birds of each species you saw together at any one time. It sounds more confusing than it is. For example, say you watched a flock of chickadees at your feeder. At first you saw four chickadees. A few minutes later you only saw two. You would report four chickadees. You wouldn't add the numbers together since you couldn't be sure if you were counting the same birds twice.
The same protocol is used for birds that you may be able to tell the difference between, like cardinals, in which the male and female look different. In science there has to be a protocol. Like a game, everyone has to play by the same rules or it just doesn't work.
Why participate? It is through bird counts like this one that scientists can get a real time snapshot of what is happening with birds across the country. Bird populations are dynamic and affected by weather, disease and habitat changes. For example, crow populations were affected by the West Nile Virus in 1999. Despite what some people may be observing in Jamestown and other urban areas this year, crow populations have been down significantly since 2003. Long-term monitoring will tell scientists more about the recovery of the population.
Nationwide, long-term monitoring can also track the spread of invasive species. The Eurasian Collared-Dove (similar to the Mourning Dove) is native to Europe but escaped captivity in the 1980s. It first appeared in Florida and bird counts have been tracking its northward spread. This year it was spotted in Alaska.
Citizen science projects are another way for people to connect to nature. Maybe watching birds is part of your daily routine or a new endeavor for you. Either way, your data is helping scientists. It's free, fun and easy. Last year, participants submitted 92,000 reports, counting 594 species for a total of 11.4 million birds. You can join too.
For more information, help with bird identification and to submit your data, visit www.birdcount.org. For those without Internet access, Audubon can provide you with the protocol and data sheets.
Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn until dusk and the center is open on winter hours from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday and Monday. Sundays we are open from 1 to 4:30 p.m. Visit jamestownaudubon.org for more information or call 569-2345.
Katie Finch is a naturalist at Audubon.