Sunday, December 28, 2014

Citizen science rocks!

All of you who have been counting frogs, logging the first blooms of daffodils and noting whether the house finches at your bird feeders have eye problems, give yourself a big pat on the back.

Citizen science rocks!

North American Bird Phenology Program Coordinator Jessica Zelt works with old migration bird cards.
North American Bird Phenology Program Coordinator Jessica Zelt works with old migration bird cards.

All of you who have been counting frogs, logging the first blooms of daffodils and noting whether the house finches at your bird feeders have eye problems, give yourself a big pat on the back.

Citizen science has new respect.

Professional scientists naturally have their expertise. But what citizen scientists bring is passion, curiosity, and perception, says Rick Bonney, director of program development and evaluation at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in an article in the journal Science.

"For most of history science was something people did as amateurs or hobbyists, but in the twentieth century it became a very specialized profession,” he writes. “Today the doors have been thrown open again. Anyone can be the eyes and ears on the ground, collecting data that even the most sophisticated instruments can't."

"It's people in their backyards looking at flowers and looking at birds, but it's way bigger than that, too. There are well over a million citizen scientists solving real-world problems: figuring out protein structures; transcribing the writing on ancient scrolls. People are studying genes to galaxies and everything in between."

Smart phones, tablet apps and online tools are making the job easier, he said, so more than ever are participating.

Meanwhile, one of the nation’s oldest citizen scientists has recently reached a new milestone.

More than 2,000 volunteers have been transcribing records of bird migrations — dating from 1880 to 1970 — recently completed the one-millionth record.

This makes the records even more valuable — now, they’re available online for use by researchers and the public as part of the U.S. Geological Survey’s North American Bird Phenology Program database.

Phenology is the study of all the things that animals and plants do that are related to the seasons — such as when plants flower, agricultural crops mature, insects emerge or, in this case, when birds migrate.

The program’s database is a 90-year span of archival data that provides baseline information about the first arrivals and last departures of North American migratory birds, said Jessica Zelt, the USGS North American Bird Phenology Program Coordinator, in a press release.

When combined with contemporary data, researchers have the unique opportunity to look at changes in seasonal timing in relation to climate and climate change over a 130-year period, unprecedented in its length of time for recorded migratory data, the press release said.

By the way, the one-millionth transcription was that of a house wren seen in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico, on September 1, 1904.

 

Sandy Bauers Inquirer GreenSpace Columnist
About this blog

GreenSpace is about environmental issues and green living. Bauers also writes a biweekly GreenSpace column about environmental health issues for the Inquirer’s Sunday “Health” section.

Sandy Bauers is the environment reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she has worked for more than 20 years as a reporter and editor. She lives in northern Chester County with her husband, two cats, a large vegetable garden and a flock of pet chickens.

Reach Sandy at sbauers@phillynews.com.

Sandy Bauers Inquirer GreenSpace Columnist
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