Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop: The Key to Unlocking Collaborative Conservation for Birds

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This was a big week in the news for citizen science in bird conservation. Audubon released a report on projected impacts of climate change on birds. The annual State of the Birds report was released at an event in Washington, DC. One partner in the State of the Birds is the U.S. North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI) Committee. Given the citizen science data used in the Audubon report and State of the Birds report, the NABCI chose a timely focus for the fall issue of their All-Bird Bulletin: The Power of Citizen Science for Bird Conservation. I was asked to write the concluding article, which I’m sharing here.

One of the biggest mysteries that puzzles ornithologists and birdwatchers alike is not about the songs of birds, or their nesting, or even their migration. The biggest mystery about birds is how humanity can best co-exist with them. When we manage our natural resources, we cannot tell birds when to migrate, which routes to take, or where to nest. We can only manage people and habitats in ways that we think will influence birds for the better. Can citizen science help provide answers to resolve this co-existence mystery? We think so.

A lot can be accomplished without citizen science. Scientists are taught to do research, publish it, and to tell managers about their findings. Birdwatchers are taught to join conservation organizations, adopt green behaviors, and write to elected officials. In this way, bird conservation is a balanced mix of rigorous science and shared public values and it gets us pretty far. But birdwatchers collect a lot of information that can be used to achieve our desire for bird conservation—if we make effective use of it. In this way, bird watchers become citizen scientists.

Citizen science is a way to discover more about birds and leverage the human dimension of conservation. With it we can gain both a shared understanding of birds and a shared concern for birds. Here are three ways citizen science expands our options for conservation:

First, citizen science not only makes good science but also fosters good citizenship. Good citizenship arises because people are empowered by the process of co-creating knowledge. There is something transformative about discovery—new knowledge enables people to see the world differently— which is a major force for change. When birdwatchers join citizen science projects, they are entering a powerful collaborative effort.

Birdwatchers have always been responsive to conservation. In response to declines in bird species at the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, people shifted from killing birds to watching them, and the term “birdwatching” was born. Conservation-oriented birdwatchers transformed the Christmas Side Hunt into the Christmas Bird Count. They switched from collecting eggs to monitoring nests. In the 1960s, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring sparked the formation of the Breeding Bird Survey and the Nest Record Cards (now called NestWatch). Birdwatchers, and serious birders, are adjusting their hobbies to advance research and conservation. Most recently, concern for birds moved eBirders to see the value of not only reporting additions to their life lists, but in repeatedly creating complete checklists that indicate the presence and absences of species at a site. As birdwatchers discover what’s possible with their collective observations, through programs such as eBird and Breeding Bird Survey, they increasingly engage in citizen science. In the past, by the thousands. Now by the tens of thousands. One day, perhaps, by the millions.

Joining with others in citizen science to gain a shared understanding of the world is a powerful feeling. Studies in informal science education have just begun to explore the empowerment aspects of citizen science. One of the first evaluations of social impacts of  citizen science began with a focus on learning and attitude changes from citizen science participation in ornithology in 2005. They found that people learned more about birds, but didn’t detect changes in attitudes about birds or science, probably because people self-select into the project and came to the project with highly positive attitudes already. Since then other studies have found that participation by “newbies” in citizen science can lead to more positive attitudes about science. Now new, more sensitive, evaluation instruments have been developed and we await more studies of participants in ornithological citizen science.

Meanwhile, studies of citizen science in other disciplines have found that participation can lead to increases in awareness, knowledge, interest, skills, attitudes, and conservation behaviors. For example, in Texas, researchers documented that volunteers who monitor water quality gained social capital through community networking on environmental issues and this has led to increased capability of the community to address these issues. In North Carolina, researchers found that volunteers monitoring the nesting of Loggerhead Sea Turtles gained local expertise and now co-manage this endangered species with the state agency. They even undertake adaptive management by adjusting their field practices according to the results of the monitoring.

In the Midwest, researchers found that people monitoring Monarch butterfly larva have experienced an increase in their feelings of connection with nature, which subsequently led to conservation actions. In Louisiana, vulnerable communities collected data on exposures to health risks after the Gulf Oil Spill. These data made their way into the hands of policy-makers (though sadly did not result in new policy). In the western U.S.,  collaborative monitoring of forest resources by immigrant communities built trust among agencies and stakeholders. Taken together, it seems that citizen science can create communities with resilience that arises from being able to learn and respond.

Second, citizen science is one of the few tools for the study and management of residential lands. While much of the nation’s public lands remain important natural areas for birds, residential lands matter too. According to The State of the Birds 2012 Report, about 60 percent of land in the United States is privately owned. In western states, public lands abound, but in the East, some states are as much as 98 percent private. We cannot rely on public lands to harbor and sustain all bird species. As urban sprawl increases, residential communities hold the potential to make or break conservation efforts. Landowners engage, intentionally and unintentionally, in actions that affect, for better or worse, the conservation of birds.

Citizen science projects like YardMap are designed to increase people’s capacity to manage their residential lands for birds. Imagine implementing the recommendations from books like Steve Kress’s The Bird Garden and collectively evaluating each recommendation via YardMap? Logistically, how else can we study and effectively manage millions of dispersed, relatively tiny parcels of land in a coordinated way? As managers of their own property, the public has the potential to adaptively manage residential landscapes at scales that have continental significance. Citizen science thus can bring inclusive and deliberative approaches to create a new culture of landuse practices with significant conservation potential. In this scenario, citizen scientists become agents of the public good and facilitators of research and conservation.

Third, citizen science is a way for the public to bring both values and knowledge to the decision-making table. The perspectives, ideas, values, and opinions of members of the public are valid influences on policy, and these can be benchmarks that decision makers use to make informed judgments on issues. Through participation in citizen science, members of the public can also contribute to the other key part of the decision-making equation: formation of scientific knowledge. For example, scientific research via citizen science could tell policy makers how many birds might be at risk from the placement of a communication tower along a flyway; public values can tell policy makers the benchmark, that is, the amount of risk that is acceptable.

Thus, with citizen science the most heightened civic engagement is possible: contributions to the formation of new knowledge and articulation of values. People can hold different values, disagree in their opinions, and be informed by different experiences, but knowledge derived from sound science is reliable, repeatable, and indisputable. With citizen science, the public can engage in the science and that leaves room for public discourse on the values. The cautionary flag is to avoid inadvertent advocacy by clearly distinguishing value judgments from scientific information. Citizens can by all means contribute both but must do so distinctly.
Citizen science advances scientific research, provides informal science education, can facilitate social and environmental change, brings fulfillment, joy, enriching experiences, and scientific discoveries, creates networks with social capital, and the list goes on. Despite how far citizen science has taken us, however, it is still in its infancy. The bottom line is that the participatory process of citizen science is operating in the service of society by informing collaborative conservation decisions and solutions based on shared evidence and shared values.


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Citizen Science for the Classroom: Special Edition

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Your citizen science backpack is here!

Here are 10 citizen science projects you can use in your classroom. SciStarter’s Karen McDonald aligned them with the new Next Generation Science Standards!

Click the title of each project to link to detailed blog posts with full descriptions of how the project can work in a classroom, and how it aligns with NGSS. Then, click “Get Started” to go directly to the SciStarter website to learn more about the project.

Learn more:”Integrating Citizen Science Into Your Classroom.” And find more projects suitable for the classroom here: SciStarter’s Classroom Picks!

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Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop: Bird watchers have themselves to thank (and here is why you should thank them too)

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Like any parent, I get a lot of questions from my kids that only an encyclopedia could properly answer. I got away with being vague when they were young: “What plant is this?” they would ask, as if they were being introduced to a new person.

“Um, a succulent.”

“Hi, succulent.”

Now they want details: “But what kind of succulent?”

Sometimes I follow in my dad’s footsteps and use his made-up words. “Mom, is there a term for the lock button on the car door?”

“Yes, that’s the ginicky.”

Suddenly I’ve become a stickler for names. Well, for one name. I recently did some digging and had a startling realization: the work of citizen scientists is quite substantial but mostly unacknowledged in the scientific literature! After working for more than a decade with citizen science, I promptly want everyone to know that this – citizen science – is the name for the wonderful phenomenon of ordinary people contributing to science. Sure, there are plenty of other names like crowdsourcing, volunteer monitoring, community-based monitoring, and more. Sure, I used to call it zealous birding (with the utmost respect). But now I realize that if we don’t all call it the same name, then we can’t easily keep track of the important role it plays in the world.

I’ve been working with a meteorologist, matching up historic weather data to historic nesting data across the United States. We are examining whether patterns in the occurrence of unhatched eggs in nests can be explained by weather variables. I was attempting a little academic bonding when I asked, “Isn’t this great that we are using bird citizen science and weather citizen science together?”

Unmoved, my meteorologist said, “This is not weather citizen science.”

My jaw dropped. “What?! Who collected all these weather observations?”

“Farmers,” he replied.

I sat and waited quietly while his words sunk in.

“What I mean is, this started before the term citizen science was even coined.”

I stared, still waiting quietly.

“Ok, so this is weather citizen science, but we don’t call it that.” (We meant meteorologists, in contrast to the lesser ornithologists).

I’ll leave meteorologists alone, for now, because their hands are full dealing with climate change deniers (Plus, I know what it’s like to hear birders talk about birds, so I can easily imagine what it’s like to hear weather bugs talk about the weather).


I want to focus on ornithologists. After all, the term citizen science, when used as I do here to refer to volunteers collecting data*, was coined by Rick Bonney at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He was initially referring specifically to birdwatchers. Certainly ornithologists must have adopted the term?

A couple of colleagues and I explored this question in our new paper in PLOS. We knew, from our own research experiences, that citizen science can provide data at spatial and temporal scales unobtainable by any single researcher. Even a tenured professor. With graduate students. Climate change is a global phenomenon unfolding over decades. We decided to look in detail at the literature on birds and climate change.

Lo and behold, there are heaps that we know about migratory birds and climate change. Here are 10 claims in the literature (Each deserve at least a blog post of their own, but that will have to wait). First, songbirds are responding to climate change by arriving earlier on breeding grounds. Second, short-distance migrants likely respond slightly differently in their timing than long-distance migrants. Third, birds are arriving earlier primarily by taking different routes. Fourth, the mechanisms controlling phenology are hardwired, likely controlled by photoperiod cues. Fifth, despite being hardwired, the exact timing of behaviors have some natural variation in response to local conditions, in this case, sixth, the variation is mainly due to weather en route. Seventh, the annual cycle constrains responses (that is, birds need to have time to breed, molt, and migrate, so there are limits on how much time any single phase can carve out of the year). Eighth, there is increased mismatch in timing between prey and predators during the breeding season. Ninth, climate change is causing population declines of birds, and, tenth, affecting community composition.

This impressive list of claims were formulated based on over 170 studies cited in a review paper in 2011. What’s unusual to see in a review is that 18 of the authors gave their expert opinions about each claim. They averaged their opinions and found there was not equal certainty about each claim. Some claims had a solid basis of support, particularly spring arrival dates advancing and short- and long-distance migration mattering. Other claims remain on shaky ground for the time being, like climate change causing population declines and alterations in community composition.

As an ornithnologist, I’m impressed by how much is known about migratory birds and climate change. My colleagues sure have been busy in the field! Or have they? On closer inspection, my co-authors and I reached three interesting conclusions.

First, by looking at the papers cited in relation to each claim, we saw that every claim contained some papers (24% at a minimum) that relied on citizen science. For some claims, as much as 77% of the studies relied on citizen science. Bravo birdwatchers!

Second, there was absolutely no relationship between the percent of citizen science supporting a claim and the opinions that researchers held about the claim. In fact, the claim regarded as having the most support was also the claim with the highest reliance on citizen science.

Third, NOT ONE of the papers referenced used the term citizen science. We had to scour the methods to determine whether volunteers were involved. Most often we could not tell unless the Acknowledgements section thanked the volunteers. In a few cases, we had to contact the authors and ask if the data were collected by volunteers. In one case, the author did not know who collected the data – it was simply a publicly available source.

I’m happy to learn that there are a lot of other ornithologists out there like me, using citizen science data. Unlike me, they just don’t talk about it. And that is their choice. But they should use citizen science as a keyword. The keyword could become a geeky way to say ‘thank you.’

For example, earlier this week, a study came out in PeerJ about insect fossils in France. Only from a tweet and a blog post did I learned that the discoveries involved two amateur organizations. The paper mentioned the Société des Naturalistes et Archéologues de l’Ain and ‘Sympetrum Recherche et Protection des Libellules’, but how could I know these were citizen science groups? Similarly, non-ornithologists won’t necessarily know that counts from the Breeding Bird Survey or banding data (called ringing in Europe) from bird stations are the sorts of data collected by volunteers.

The ‘invisibleness’ findings explained a lingering puzzle. If you use a search engine, like Google scholar, and the search term ‘citizen science’, then about 80% of what you get are papers about citizen science. These are papers from the fields of informal science education, informatics, human-computer interactions, and others that study and support the practice of citizen science. Only about 20% (this is an off-the-cuff guesstimate, as was the 80%) of the papers are new discoveries that rely on citizen science contributions.

There is an enormous wealth of knowledge for which we implicitly assume comes exclusively from people working in the scientific profession. When we stop and call it by its name, we begin to see the importance of publicly engaged research. Credit should be dispersed a little wider. Birdwatcher, you actually you have each other to thank.

Now, when a kid asks a parent, “What in the world is that bird watcher doing?”

The answer will be a name, like an introduction.

“Hi, citizen science.”



*Citizen science was coined by Alan Irwin in 1995, with a different meaning. For example, see this past post.


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Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop: A Tide of Citizen Science History Revisited

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After sharknado 2, shark week, and Thiel’s review of the impacts and promises of citizen science for marine research, here is a second (historic) post about historic citizen science in the marine environment (originally at Scientific American).

In my last blog post, I introduced Matthew Maury, an American naval officer who began a citizen science project in the mid-1800s that transformed seafaring and drew society closer to science. Now let’s meet his British counterpart, William Whewell, an elite scholar who engaged the public to understand the tides, but in so doing helped to solidify the distinction between amateur and professional scientists.


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Informing NASA’s Asteroid Initiative: Your Chance to Participate!

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Asteroid Sample Retrieval

Asteroid Sample Retrieval

August 28, 2014

In its history, the Earth has been repeatedly struck by asteroids, large chunks of rock from space that can cause considerable damage in a collision. Can we—or should we—try to protect Earth from potentially hazardous impacts?

How about harvesting asteroids for potential economic benefits? What do we do if we find an asteroid that threatens Earth? How should we balance costs, risks, and benefits of human exploration in space?

Sounds like stuff just for rocket scientists. But how would you like to be part of this discussion?

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Wanted: You and Your Dog! For Science! – It’s National Dog Day! [GUEST POST]

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Editor’s Note: In honor of National Dog Day, we are featuring an article by Julie Hecht, the Dog Spies blogger for Scientific American.


She's ready for science. Photo by Rebecca Moore-Ghilarducci

This dog is ready for science.
Photo: Rebecca Moore-Ghilarducci

A few years back, John Homans, former executive editor of New York magazine, published What’s a Dog For? — an intimate reflection on his beloved family dog, Stella, as well as a snapshot into the flourishing field of canine science. Looking down at the wagging tail by your side, you could easily answer the above question. What’s a dog for? Simple. Dogs are our family members and friends, our assistants and fellow-workers, and in some cases, our unexpected mentors. But would you also add ‘enthusiastic science partner’ to the list?

Since the late 1990s, companion dogs and their owners have played a crucial role in the growing field of canine science — a field investigating a wide range of questions about who dogs are and how they came to live their lives so intertwined with ours. To borrow from Dr. Alexandra Horowitz’s New York Times bestseller Inside of a Dog, researchers are tackling the nuances of “what dogs see, smell, and know,” and all those burning questions you have about dogs. In recent years, we’ve learned why dogs so easily move in sync with us (they readily attend to not only our gestures, but also our gaze and even our facial expressions), why dogs eat food off the table when you are out of, but not in, the room (they learn to note your attentional states), and how our assessments of dogs are not always spot-on (studies to date suggest the beloved “guilty look” in dogs is not what we think it means).

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Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop: fishermen, sailor, beachcomber, diver – the seas of research helpers

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Many of you have had summer fun with citizen science at the beach, intertidal zone, and ocean. What do your efforts contribute to? In a new chapter, Martin Thiel and colleagues tallied the contributions of citizen science to marine research. Thiel is known for his research relying on volunteers who clean up beaches, but for this chapter they looked at over 200 studies on topics that ranged from algae to vertebrates. About 40 of the studies were local, 122 were regional, and 65 involved larger geographic regions (28 national, 28 international, 9 global). Most commonly projects involved surveys, transects, and opportunistic sightings.

Marine scientists often depend on non-scientists, from general public to fishermen to ship crews to beachgoers. Thiel reviewed papers published within the past 30 years, but some of the research papers were based on decades of citizen science; one was based on over 150 years of continuous data collection. This is not a new phenomenon. I first learned about the history of citizen science when I read about the father of Oceanography, Matthew Maury. In this context, I felt that modern citizen science is actually quite retro, which inspired my post about Maury (below), originally at Scientific American.


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The Citizen Science Funding Resource Guide

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Looking for ways to fund citizen science research? Check out the Citizen Science Funding Resource Guide!

242px-Environmental_Protection_Agency_logo.svgJessica Clemente, an environmental science graduate thought she would be doing work outside of her community once she got her degree. But she is an asthmatic, and when she found out there was an asthma study taking place in the area of her home in South Bronx she became involved and eventually took the lead. “Living day-to-day in an area where all I saw was high traffic volumes, poor air quality and adding more waste to our community got me enraged,” she says in an EPA video interview. Her anger prompted action, and she looked at the tools to empower herself and her community—education and advocacy.

In many cases, there is a connection between socioeconomic status and air quality. Some call it environmental justice—why should a factory spew tons of filth into the same air that a poor, young family across the road breathes? Amanda Kaufman, the Environmental Health Fellow in the Air Climate and Energy Program Office at the EPA says, “We are currently working with a community in Newark, New Jersey that has faced environmental justice issues in the past and still faces many to this day.  We hope to collaborate with the community action group to establish a community-led air monitoring project.”

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Exploring a Culture of Health: Repurposing Medicine to Help More People

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How can we use medication efficiently to help more people? (Image Credit: Pixabay / CC0 1.0)

This post is part of Exploring a Culture of Health, a citizen science series brought to you by Discover Magazine, SciStarter and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, serving as an ally to help Americans work together to build a national Culture of Health that enables everyone to lead healthier lives now and for generations to come.

Each year in the U.S. millions of dollars’ worth of useable medication is destroyed. While at the same time one in four working adults cannot afford their medication. It is a confusing and unnecessary contradiction.

Fortunately innovative organizations recognize that by recycling or repurposing medication it is possible to limit waste and conserve resources while helping individuals live healthier lives.
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Exploring a Culture of Health: Reimagining Medical and Health Education

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How can we reimagine online health learning? (Image Credit: Pixabay / CC0 1.0)

How can we reimagine online health learning? (Image Credit: Pixabay / CC0 1.0)

This post is part of Exploring a Culture of Health, a citizen science series brought to you by Discover Magazine, SciStarter and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, serving as an ally to help Americans work together to build a national Culture of Health that enables everyone to lead healthier lives now and for generations to come.

What we know about health and medicine is ever changing and improving. So should the way we teach and learn about it.

For several years now, Khan Academy has been reimagining teaching and improving access to education. As part of their mission to provide “a free world-class education to anyone, anywhere”, they develop free online video lessons to help students, teachers, and parents tackle subjects ranging from algebra to art history to computing. With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), they are now turning their attention to medical and health education.

“We need more effective ways to spread knowledge about health and medicine and online tools seem to have a lot of potential in this respect,” explains Michael Painter, senior program officer at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “With Khan Academy’s focus on disrupting traditional approaches to education and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s interest in disrupting traditional notions of health and medicine it seemed like a good match.”

There is an enormous quantity of potential health and medical content that can be taught. Khan and RWJF decided to focus on developing student preparation resources for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), the exam prospective students must take for admission into medical school.

Recognizing that many individuals are passionate about education, Khan Academy hosted a content competition to find talent. Khan Academy was looking for submissions, which were informative, engaging, and well-constructed. Many winners were residents and young medical faculty. They were treated to a video ‘boot camp’ to hone their video making skills before they were let loose to create their instructional videos. A second competition was completed this past spring to refresh the first cohort of video makers. To make sure the content is accurate, the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) is overseeing a review of the content before it is posted online.

These videos are part of Khan’s Health and Medicine catalogue. The section has a growing library of content covering a range of topics including cardiovascular diseases, the musculoskeletal system, and cognition. It also has information about general health and fitness and as well as a section on understanding lab test results. Within each topic module there are several videos that sequentially guide the viewer through the relevant material. Some modules contain a comprehension quiz. While the content is geared towards healthcare trainees and practitioners, all are relevant and viewable for the general public.

“This is a platform to provide free, high-quality resources in the area of health and medicine. We want to offer a deep learning experience that is accessible to anyone, anywhere.  As such, we try to avoid using jargon and don’t always assume a pre-existing base of medical knowledge.  For instance, our video on anemia breaks down the complexities of oxygen delivery in the body by drawing an analogy, and using clear language appropriate for anyone interested in learning about the disease,” says Rishi Desai, MD, MPH the Khan Academy medical partnership program lead.

Building on its work with the MCAT, Khan Academy is in the process of generating content in collaboration with the Association of American Colleges of Nursing and the Jonas Center to offer preparation materials for the NCLEX-RN, the registered nurses licensing exam.

“We believe efforts such as these will make significant improvements in the education of health care providers and ultimately in the care they deliver to patients,” says Painter.

What ways can you think of to improve health and medical information? Leave a comment below.


What to expand your science knowledge? Check out these free online science learning resources.

VisionLearning is an online resource for undergraduate level science education. Lessons are organized in concise and engaging modules interspersed with comprehension check points and animations to keep students engaged. Material is created by professional scientists and educators. In addition the site provides resources for helping educators create a lesson plans. Read a more detailed description here.

The National Science Digital Library This site provides a collection of free resources and tools which support science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.  Resources include activities, lesson plans, websites rosters, simulations, or other materials to facilitate STEM education.

Citizen Science Academy A tool for educators interested in incorporating citizen science projects in their curriculum. Courses and tutorials help guide educators through the process. There are also opportunities for continuing education credits.


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