Citizen science in full flight

Nonscientists follow their interests and help professional researchers gather data

CorrespondentMarch 29, 2010 

  • To see the Braggs' barred owl video:


    Prairie Ridge Ecostation: Monitor box turtles, birds, weather and aquatic macro-invertebrates at this 38-acre ecostation near Raleigh. Citizen Science FrogWatch USA day, 7 p.m. April 9. collections/citizen-science

    All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory: Collect fungi, butterflies, insects and more, then help catalog them to create an index of the biological diversity in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

    Plant Stalkers: Starting in May, track invasive plants along the Eno River near Durham.

    Carolina Herps Atlas: Track reptile sightings.

    N.C. Calling Amphibian Survey Program: Follow pre-plotted routes and pause at designated stops to listen for and record amphibian calls.

    Texts for fish reports: N.C. Sea Grant Extension Program is testing a program using text messages to report numbers and types of fish caught and released by sports anglers. Contact: Scott Baker,

    National Projects

    Firefly Watch: Project based at Boston Museum of Science.

    Frog Watch USA: Learn about wetlands and help conserve amphibians by reporting the calls of local frogs and toads.

    Project BudBurst: Track the first leafing, first flower and first fruit ripening of a diversity of trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses in your area. citizen_science/budburst/index.php

    Open Dinosaur Project: Help create an online database of dinosaur limb bone measurements used to investigate questions of dinosaur evolution.

    Great Backyard Birdcount: Annual program to identify and count birds where they live over four days in mid-February. www.bird

    Project FeederWatch: Put up a bird feeder, watch the birds that use it and report your sightings online.

    eBird: Report bird sightings to help create an online globally accessible database showing bird distribution and abundance.

    Galaxy Zoo: Global program for armchair astronomers to sort and classify a million different images of galaxies according to shape.

    More projects: or citizenscience.pdf

Every evening before supper, Benton Bragg takes his three oldest children,ages 9, 8 and 6, for a walk on their farm in the Ramah Creek Conservation Area near Huntersville. They amble to a poplar tree with a nest box nailed to the trunk about 20 feet above the ground. Sometimes the box's occupant, a female barred owl, comes barreling out when she hears them coming.

Thirty feet shy of the tree, the 42-year old father stoops down and removes a memory chip from a solar-powered unit that fuels a motion-activated camera inside the nest box. Back home, Bragg and his family crowd around the computer, eager to learn what the mother owl has been up to.

"We never know what we're going to see," Bragg said. "One night she brought in seven snakes. Another night it was salamander night. Once, she brought in what I think was one of my brother's chickens."

Bragg and his family are active participants in the research of UNC Charlotte biologist Rob Bierregaard, who has conducted groundbreaking work on barred owls.

Once thought to live only in old-growth forests, Bierregaard has shown they also do quite well in cities with mature hardwood trees. And by comparing the habits of rural owls, like the one on Bragg's property, to city owls, Bierregaard has illuminated important differences in what they eat and in their behavior. Urban owls, for example, eat comparatively more birds and fewer amphibians.

Nonscientists like Bragg throughout North Carolina and the nation are participating in a smorgasbord of projects, studying birds, amphibians, plants, mammals, chemistry, dinosaurs, climate change, light pollution, the galaxy - the list goes on.

Citizen science involves nonscientist volunteers gathering and reporting data for scientific studies. Less often, they help analyze it. Participating is a two-way street. It not only funnels data to scientists faster than they could accumulate it using only trained researchers, it also gives citizens a window to science.

"We are definitely learning about science and how they put data together," said Bragg, who works in investment and wealth management. He says that by interacting with Bierregaard and his graduate students and by following their research his family is learning not just about the owls but also about how data is gathered and used.

Charlotte-area residents have a long history of participating in Bierregaard's owl studies. About 20 times a month, Bierregaard's e-mail pings or his cell phone rings with someone reporting an owl or nest sighting. The reports allow Bierregaard and his team of student researchers to track the birds of prey.

Increasing scientific literacy among the lay public and increasing conservation actions should be two goals of every citizen science project, said Rick Bonney, director of program development and evaluation at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. For two decades, Bonney has developed citizen science projects using bird watchers.

Citizen science is often overlooked as a reliable method for gathering and reporting data, Bonney said, but if done right it can yield powerful results. The Cornell Lab has sunk more than $15 million into designing valid citizen science projects, he said.

The eBird venture is one of the Cornell Lab's citizen science projects. Participants submit online checklists of their bird sightings; the goal is to capture long-term trends of how many birds of which species are where and when. Nathan Swick, an eBird user in Chapel Hill, said it also gives bird watchers a chance to take a very personal hobby and plug into a national conservation effort.

"Using eBird bridges a gap between bird watchers just making checklists and storing them in shoe boxes in their closet, versus using our online checklists and contributing to the conservation of bird species," said Swick, who is also the volunteer eBird editor for North Carolina.

Software in the program converts logged sightings into maps showing the distribution and abundance of birds by species across North America. But if someone enters too many birds, or a bird that is out of its range given the season, the record is flagged and sent to a human editor, like Swick. He averages about 30 to 50 flagged records per week. He vets each one.

Some developers of citizen science projects, like Bonney of the Cornell Lab, are pushing to create a professional society for citizen science developers centered on creating best practices and guidelines.

Darlene Cavalier, co-founder of, an online clearinghouse for more than 125 citizen science projects, said creating a professional society is a good idea so long as it includes smaller grassroots projects unaffiliated with a university or research institution.

Cavalier said she's been "preaching the gospel" of citizen science for the past five years. She thinks the prejudice against citizen scientists producing faulty data is crumbling.

"There are so many credible institutions involved in citizen science now," Cavalier said. "When you see Yale, Cornell and NASA doing it, I think that most scientists now see it is legitimate."

Scientists and allied professionals may need some time to sort out the parameters of the burgeoning field, but anyone interested in getting involved should find many local opportunities once they start looking.

T. DeLene Beeland:

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