The Great Backyard Bird Count is perhaps one of North America’s most popular citizen science projects. It’s been on-going since 1998, and uses the power of citizen’s eyes and interest to create a snapshot of what kinds of birds are where, and in what abundance, in mid-February.
The 2010 four-day count wrapped up last week on Feb. 15th with citizens across the nation reporting 90,898 checklists tallying 10,587,907 individual birds representing 597 species.* The most frequently reported bird was our state bird, the Northern Cardinal. North Carolinian’s sent in 4,722 checklists, resulting in our state ranking third among total number of checklists submitted. (Mine was among them.) Visit this map of N.C. state results to see species tallies for what your fellow citizens reported.
But one thing the checklists did not capture was a rare winter migrant wandering south through The Triangle. Rick Bonney, director of program development and evaluation at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology visited Sigma Xi in Research Triangle Park on Tuesday and imparted hard-won words of advice to the Science Communicators of North Carolina about developing citizen science projects, like the Great Backyard Bird Count, garnered across his more than two decades of experience at Cornell. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology collaborates with the Audubon Society** and Bird Studies Canada on the GBBC, but they also have many of their own citizen science projects, and as Bonney described, a very long history of engaging citizens in science that traces all the way back to the lab’s founder, Arthur Allen.
Citizen science, by definition, generally involves using a network of non-scientist citizens to gather and report data used for scientific analysis. Less often, it involves citizens participating in the data analysis itself. One of the criticisms of using citizen scientists centers on the reliability of the data gathered. Bonney said that with proper pilot testing, training of volunteers and project design, reliability of the data can be ensured. Though Bonney did not delve into the mechanisms ensuring the rigor and integrity of data gathered by citizen scientists, he did allude to the fact that about 15 staff at the Cornell Lab have spent more than two decades and $15 million dollars “getting it right.”
For the most part, data from the three top citizen science projects at the lab — the GBBC, eBird and Project FeederWatch — are used to make maps that visualize where species are found, how many are there, at what time of year, and across time as well as answer questions about bird behavior and ecology. Maps can be compared across time to examine, for example, the red-bellied woodpecker’s northern range expansion in the past few years (thanks to climate change). Or the meandering seasonal distribution of common redpolls based upon food availability. Maps can be used to help target conservation areas for sensitive species, and trace how species use habitat. Unfortunately, the maps include an inherent reporting bias: species are routinely under-reported in areas of sparse human settlement. Other projects, like CamClickr, allow observers to sort and categorize millions of images snapped from “nest cams” inside nest cavities and nest boxes, giving the participant an insider’s view to the life of wild birds while also giving scientists a leg-up on classifying their data.
“To my knowledge, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is the only major science institution with a commitment to citizen science in its mission statement,” Bonney said. (Anyone care to fact-check this? Feel free to leave your findings in our comment section.)
Bonney said he has a success rate “approaching 70 percent” for garnering National Science Foundation funding for citizen science projects, and he stated he’s had 18 NSF proposals funded to the tune of about $20 million over the past two decades. Aside from trying to answer specific scientific questions, he said the lab’s goal with citizen science projects is to: 1.) increase scientific knowledge; 2.) gather meaningful data that answers large-scale questions; 3.) increase conservation action; and 4.) get people to think critically and evaluate evidence.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology features 11 citizen science projects on their website. Check them out.
Have you participated in a citizen science project? Tell us about it in the comments section.
* Numbers are not final, since citizens have until March 1 to report their sightings.
** One of the longest running citizen science projects in the nation is the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which has been active for 110 years.