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.