What Is Citizen Science?
Before Frank Chapman came along, there was no such thing as "citizen science," and the way most enthusiasts interacted with birds they liked to look at was to shoot them dead.
But on Christmas Day in 1900, Chapman, an officer in the then-young Audubon Society, decided to organize his fellows for a bird count instead of the traditional hunt.
He didn't know it then, but citizen science was born.
Citizen science asks countless individuals to contribute their observations of a particular thing birds, frogs, flowers and, as you'll see, much more to a central database, which trained scientists analyze. It infinitely extends the observational powers of trained scientists, allowing them to ask and answer questions about long-term and widespread changes in the environment that otherwise would be impossible to contemplate.
For individuals, it's a chance to connect with the outside world in a real, meaningful and often fun way.
Citizen science programs are listed here more or less in order by time of year, though year-round programs are sprinkled throughout.
Christmas Bird Count
Dates: Three weeks in December and January
You'll be in the good company of tens of thousands of Americans if you participate in the Christmas Bird Count.
All you have to do is search for a local bird count (they've already been organized) and join a group, or, if you're in close proximity to the location of a planned count, you can report the birds you see at your feeder. Each group will count birds on only one day, so check the list and get involved.
The data helps the National Audubon Society with a range of research, including research that informs its State of the Birds report and its WatchList of species in decline.
For more information, visit audubon.org/bird/cbc.
Great Backyard Bird Count
Dates: Feb 18-21, 2011
The Great Backyard Bird Count is a lot like the Christmas Bird Count, but with a little less structure, so it's easier for a beginner to get involved. You can spend as little time as 15 minutes one day, or spend more time every day of the count. Either way, all you have to do is choose a spot and count the number and types of birds you observe.
Like the Christmas Bird Count data, the information informs scientists trying to understand how the populations of birds are changing. The annual snapshot is a valuable tool scientists can use to assess the health of all of the birds that winter in the United States.
Extend your participation throughout the year by helping the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology track the prevalence of an infectious disease, mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, which affects the eyes of house finches and American goldfinches, both of which are common at backyard bird feeders. (Boost your chances of seeing interesting birds by making your garden friendly to birds and other wildlife.
Dates: All year
Not every lover of the outdoors lives on a ranch in the countryside. Most of us live in cities, and that's why there's PigeonWatch.
Perfect for kids, PigeonWatch is a Cornell Lab of Ornithology program that's nine parts education to every one part science. It's a good way for city kids to become familiar with a common and surprisingly beautiful (really, give these "flying rats" a second chance!) birds, and learn about scientific observation in the process.
Another of the lab's programs, Celebrate Urban Birds, goes further, asking participants to spend 10 minutes observing 16 urban birds and reporting their observations. It's a good way to get to know local crows, robins, orioles, swallows, and even more exotic species, like the black-crowned night heron and the peregrine falcon.
Dates: March-May (check for exact dates)
You can learn a lot about the living by studying the dead. That, at least, is the premise of Project RoadKill, which like Project PigeonWatch is more about education than science.
Students choose a road each and monitor it twice daily and report what animals are killed there, along with data about speed limit and the like. While it may not provide scientists with useful information, it does remind students that roadways can be big killers of wildlife, and it can prime them for work on other citizen science projects. And it opens a window on the activities of wild animals in local neighborhoods that might otherwise be difficult or impossible to observe.
For more information, visit Project RoadKill.
Did You Feel It?
Dates: All year
This program is one you won't think of ... until you do.
If you feel an earthquake, report it to the U.S. Geological Survey, which gathers data about earthquakes for such important tasks as describing the severity of quakes so emergency response can react appropriately, learning how to predict the danger zones and safeguarding buildings and other infrastructure against all that shaking. Oh, and it saves taxpayers (that's you!) money by providing a zero-cost source of data that would otherwise have to be gathered by expensive machinery or staff spread across the country.
To report an earthquake, visit earthquake.usgs.gov.
To hunt for new citizen science opportunities, check out this great blog: Citizen Science Projects.
Cooperative Weather Observer Program
Dates: All year
The National Weather Service's Cooperative Observer Program involves more than 11,000 volunteers who take daily weather data that inform experts' understanding of the U.S. climate as it is, as it was — and as it may change. The data gathered helps meteorologists improve their forecasts (and assess how accurate their past forecasts have been).
Volunteers must be trained and commit to daily data collection of such information as the highest and lowest temperature recorded in the previous 24-hour period, and how much precipitation occurred. When your local meteorologist lists the snow totals from recent storms, he or she is relying on the observations of individual volunteers across the region.
To learn more, visit the National Weather Service.
Dates: Varies by region — whenever frogs are breeding
If you think birds are, well, for the birds, then maybe frogs are a better fit.
Frogwatch USA, developed by the National Wildlife Federation and now a program of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, is an attempt to use citizen scientists to monitor the health of frogs. As the Year of the Frog in 2008 should have taught us, the health of frogs and other amphibians worldwide is not good, as pollution, habitat loss, an aggressive fungal disease and other stresses affect these charismatic species.
You can help by spending as little 20 minutes twice a week observing the frogs breeding in wetlands near your home. In northern parts of the country, frogs breed primarily in the spring, though some species breed throughout the warm months and some breed year-round in warmer latitudes.
For more information, visit nwf.org/frogwatchUSA.
Dates: Primarily in spring and summer
How are native trees and flowers responding to environmental changes like global warming, the loss of species or the decline in native pollinators? That is the question Project BudBurst seeks to answer.
Participants monitor the phenological events of native plants, like the date when Pacific trillium blooms, black locust leafs out or woods strawberry puts out fruit.
The collective observations extend scientists' reach far beyond what would be possible otherwise. Because climate change will have such widespread effects, citizen science is one of the best ways to document it.
For more information, visit Project BudBurst.
Wildlife Phenology Program
Dates: All year
Announced in late 2008, this partnership between the Wildlife Society, the USA National Phenology Network, USGS and the University of Arizona-Tucson aims to extend the Plant Phenology Program (see Project BudBurst) to other forms of living things.
Phenology is the study of the seasonal timing of plant and animal life-cycle events such as bird, fish and mammal migration; emergence from hibernation; and the leafing, blooming and fruiting of plants. Global warming is causing a resurgence in interest in phenology, as the growing season lengthens, winters shorten and fears grow that some wildlife adapted to live with one another get out of sync (think bees pollinating flowers or migratory birds feasting on spring bugs).
The program's success will rely on the participation of people across the country. Details have yet to be announced, but watch the USA-NPN Web site for updates.
Dates: Spring and summer
Another citizen science project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, NestWatch is exactly what it sounds like.
To participate, you need to have access to a nest with a breeding bird — preferably one of about 25 focal species, like the mountain bluebird pictured here — and observe it during the breeding season.
By reporting your observations, you help scientists gather data over a wide area and long time period about breeding birds in North America.
A similar program for non-nesting birds is eBird, and a NestWatch for photography lovers is CamClickr.
Monarch Larva Monitoring Project
Dates: Late spring to fall
The life cycle of the monarch butterfly is one of the most amazing in nature. Best of all, perhaps, is that the butterfly is both beautiful and accessible — giving volunteers ample opportunity to participate in citizen science projects aiding scientists trying to understand this creature.
After wintering in Mexico, adult butterflies migrate north as far as Canada. The eggs they lay develop, and while those adults will never return to Mexico, the generation(s) they spawn will make the return trip in the fall, traveling up to 3,000 miles. Because larvae feed exclusively on milkweed, the abundance of this plant is critically important to the survival of the species.
Participants commit to monitor patches of milkweed weekly to count monarch eggs and larvae, and assess milkweed density.
For more information, visit the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project.
Milkweed and Nectar Plant Phenology Project
Dates: Spring to fall
A partnership between two projects you'll find elsewhere in this feature, Monarch Watch and Project BudBurst, this project aims to understand how climate change and other factors may affect plants that are critical for the survival of monarch butterflies.
As the title of the project suggests, the focus is the milkweed on which larvae feed and the nectar plants like lilac, sunflower, and purple coneflower on which adults feed.
To participate, you identify which plants of interest occur in your area, and then you observe "firsts" first emergence from soil, first flower bud, first open flower, etc. and send your observations to the National Phenology Network.
For more information, read this post on the Monarch Watch blog.
Great Lakes Worm Watch
Dates: Spring, summer, and fall
Open to residents in the six Great Lakes states — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Indiana — this University of Minnesota project aims to understand how earthworms affect the environment.
Earthworms? But aren't they good for soil?
Earthworms are actually not native to North American hardwood forests, and by changing the soil they harm the ecosystem that supports the existing forest.
To participate, check the list of partners working with the University of Minnesota to see if you can get involved.
Dates: All year
The Appalachian Mountain Club's Mountain Watch program seeks to enlist the nation's hikers in an effort to understand changes occurring due to climate change and air pollution, especially on America's mountains.
Citizen science opportunities include observations of mountain plants and flowers whose distribution may be shifting as the climate warms, and of visibility, which is affected by smog.
Another good project in which hikers can participate is the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's Birds in Forested Landscapes program.
Kwiáht is a research organization based in Washington states San Juan Islands. Their marine research program depends on local teams of volunteers, including students, for much of the fieldwork and laboratory analysis.
One student expedition led to the discovery of fairy shrimp (pictured), endangered in California and Oregon and rare in Washington. Another project works to identify bats like the rare big-eared bat (pictured here) which was identified for the first time since the 1940s.
For more information, visit www.kwiaht.org.
Dates: Spring, Summer and Fall
When most people think of bees, they think of honey bees, and when most people think of trouble with bees, they think of colony collapse disorder, that mysterious disease killing off honey bees. But honey bees hail from Europe, and North America is home to many other species of bees, as well as many other species of flies, butterflies and other insects that pollinate flowers. Unfortunately, like honey bees, these native pollinators show worrying signs of decline, and there's scant scientific information about many of them.
That's where Bee Hunt comes in. By engaging people, especially kids, across North America, Bee Hunt is gathering data about the type and distribution of pollinating insects across the U.S. (It's also gathering information about native lady bugs, which eat aphids and being replaced in the landscape by invasive species of similar bugs from Asia and elsewhere.) Participants take photos of pollinating insects and gather data about the landscape they inhabit.
For more information, visit discoverlife.org/bee.
Fireflies are one of the harbingers of summer and an early inspiration for many people venturing outside. But they may be in trouble.
Scientists don't have much data about fireflies where they live, how abundant they are, what environmental factors help or harm them. Firefly Watch aims to change that by enlisting legions of volunteers across the country, but especially in New England, to observe fireflies and report data about their activities in various habitats to a central database that scientists at Tufts University, Fitchburg State College and the Boston Museum of Science can analyze.
For more information, visit Firefly Watch.
The Great Sunflower Project
Dates: Spring to fall
One of the youngest citizen science programs in the country, the Great Sunflower Project is also among the most fun — since it involves planting one's own sunflowers. But the larger goal is much bigger: to understand more about how bees feed themselves, and hopefully how we can help reverse recent staggering declines in bee populations.
All you have to do to participate is plant sunflowers — you receive a seed packet in the mail when you sign up — and when they bloom, observe bee activity on the flowers. It takes no more than 30 minutes per observation.
For more information, visit The Great Sunflower Project.
Earthdive, the Great Annual Fish Count and REEF
Dates: Whenever and wherever it's warm, especially July
Going on vacation to a tropical paradise? Consider an earthdive while you're there. Earthdive, supported by the United Nations Environment Program, asks scuba divers and snorkelers to log sightings of key species and human-induced pressures on marine ecosystems.
Or, if you'll be diving or snorkeling in July, join the Great Annual Fish Count, a similar effort to take a snapshot of marine ecosystems around the world. The annual count is organized by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation. REEF also sponsors an ongoing Volunteer Survey Project that is active along the U.S. coasts.
Dates: All year
Hey, birds, butterflies, frogs, and even earthworms have their own citizen science project. Why not spiders?
As intensely as many people react to spiders, scientists actually know very little about most of the 4,400 species (or more) that can call North America home. To learn more, Spider WebWatch is asking volunteers to look for nine ambassador species (none of them, of course, venomous) and report their observations of one of three jumper spiders (the bold, bronze, and zebra); one of two garden spiders (the banded banded and yellow — pictured here); the six-spotted fishing spider; the parson spider; the goldenrod crab spider; or the cat-faced spider.
If just hearing those names creeps you out, then this project is for you. Really. Get over your fear and contribute to science.
To learn more (or just see some great creepy pictures) visit SpiderWebWatch.org.
Dates: Late August-October
With all the diligent attention citizen scientists pay to milkweed and monarch larvae, it's only fitting that the actual adult butterfly get some attention. That's where Monarch Watch comes in.
Volunteers can get involved by (carefully) capturing and tagging adult butterflies, collecting important data about their weight and health, and/or observing their flight. By doing so, you help scientists develop data about which monarchs survive the long migration from the U.S. and Canada to Mexico, and how exactly it is that butterflies that have never seen Mexico manage to fly 3,000 miles to reach it.
Are only the large and fat destined to survive? Do monarchs navigate by some internal compass? Or the angle of the sun? These are the types of questions you can help scientists answer.
For more information, visit MonarchWatch.org.
Dates: Spring and fall
Billed as the "premier citizen science project for children," Journey North "engages students in a global study of wildlife migration and seasonal change" by asking them to track migrating wildlife, like hummingbirds, butterflies, eagles and hawks — even gray whales (if you're lucky enough to live along the right coast).
For people who want to get more intensely involved, there's the National Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology's program, Priority Migrant eBird. This program focuses on five neotropical migrant birds — those that migrate from Central and South America to North America and back, like the cerulean warbler pictured here.
Dates: Varies by location, but primarily spring and fall
Mushrooms are both edible ... and deadly. And as it turns out, even mushroom experts can get confused when they try to identify fungi. By some estimates, fewer than 5 percent of the world's species have been described adequately by science.
Mushroom Observer is a long-term project to connect expert mycologists and amateur mushroom hunters on the Web, so they can help each other identify hard-to-recognize mushrooms and collectively build knowledge.
For more information, visit mushroomobserver.org.
World Water Monitoring Day
Date: Sept. 18
Initiated to recognize the anniversary of the Clean Water Act's enactment by Congress, World Water Monitoring Day is a chance for people everywhere around the world to get wet and gather water quality data in their communities. (By 2012, 1 million people in 100 nations are expected to be participating.)
The organization provides individuals with easy-to-use test kits, so amateurs and students can participate. Local watershed protection groups often use the same tools for more in-depth studies of local water bodies: Look for the opportunity to participate with these groups, too.
For more information, visit WorldWaterMonitoringDay.org.