How Science Can Use Your Help

I always imagined science and the understanding of the current state of our ecosystems to be the role of the scientist. Somehow I had convinced myself that science was to occur in some obscure basement laboratory or in some fancy bureau on the top of a hill or within the intimidating gates of a University.  Now I know that when it comes to understanding the state of ecosystems, science can actually use my help!

It all started with poop. Yes, that is right I got pooped on, literally.

We have a gorgeous forest close to our house. It’s about a 5 min walk from our doorstep. Chopping it down and building more model homes, luckily for me, got halted back in 2008, with the foreclosure bit of the global economic meltdown.  

On the day of the pooping, I was taking my daily stroll in these woods. I saw the culprit. It was a beautiful bird--the clay-colored Sparrow. This lovely light bird is under both State and Federal protection with the Protected Wildlife and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act,

My dad was a major bird lover and would take us all over these great states with his books, binoculars and walking shoes to find, identify and appreciate them. My brother has followed in these footsteps and is now also an ornithologist (bird scientist) by trade, he has a Masters degree on the subject and, like I said, once he had that degree in his hand my bird-knowing  confidence shrunk and I passed the responsibility about knowing birds solely over to him because he was a scientist, an expert and I was well, just me.

Later that night when I spoke with my brother, I told him briefly of my incident and the bird I saw, or that saw me I suppose. I was a bit surprised by his response.

“Great! Well, you definitely have to report that, it is rare to see the clay-colored sparrow this far north in the early fall.”

Startled by his firm response my mind started to wander, “Report that? To whom? Is it not enough to report it to you the scientist that knows birds?” 

“Report it to the Cornell citizen science initiative”, he explained. This is an initiative that functions based on the support of volunteers who track species they see and in so doing contribute to the most dynamic and powerful source of information on birds in the WORLD”

“oh…” I decided to do some research…       


"Zugvogelschwarm" / "Swarm Of Migratory Birds" 2010 wood, metal, paint, kite string, 190x165x7 cm, Annika Unterburg

It turns out, that by sharing my observations about the birds I see during walks in my beloved park, I can, in a small way, contribute to our global understanding of biodiversity!  Reporting the birds is considered an act of citizen science.

I had the chance to speak with Dr David Bonter, the Assistant Director of the citizen science program at the Cornell lab of Ornithology.

“What exactly is citizen science?", I timidly asked.

“Citizen science is a partnership between the public and the scientific community to learn more about, in our case, the natural world. There are citizen science projects that work in astronomy and geology and all sorts of stuff.  We work with birds here. The public helps us to understand what is going on with bird populations; for example to understand where the birds are” his warm welcoming response carried me to my preferred state of calm and curiosity.

Local participants are in a unique position to contribute sustained place-based knowledge and monitoring endeavors because they have regular contact with the landscape in question, and are likely interested in that ecosystems health and biodiversity (Trumbull et al, 2000). I can sympathize with that. I feel I have a vested interest in the beautiful park near my house. And for those who are not born naturalists, citizen science can encourage community members to learn about nature and become more involved in their local environment.

Not only can participating in citizen science help me to better understand the biodiversity and ecosystem health of the park by my house, but also, as Dr. Bonter described, “participants can learn how what they see in their backyards fits into a bigger picture.” Vast numbers of volunteers from one side of the continent to another (including Canada, remember), make it possible for scientists to address important BIG questions that require data spanning large areas and long periods of time.  

“There is really no way that we can ask or answer a lot of the large scale questions about, in, our case bird populations, without enlisting the public. Birds exist over vast areas and it is far too much territory for an individual scientist or even a group of scientists to go out and gather the information that we need. So we really need to partner with people to let us know what is going on in their own backyards and neighborhoods to help us understand what is going on with birds. At the same time engagement with the scientists and through their involvement in projects, the participants are learning a lot about the natural world. So it is an educational and research partnership between the public and scientists. Really there is no way to get at the questions we need answered without enlisting the public,” argues Dr Bonter.

There exist a plethora of citizen science projects for beginners and die-hards alike and ranging in topics as well. The project page at the Cornell Lab is a great starting place for people to find out more about different projects happening from butterfly spotting to water quality monitoring. “Name the species name the topic and there are examples”. For example, highway wildlife sightings (Lee et al 2006), song bird nesting sights (Brossard et al 2005; Evans et al 2005), lake and coastal water quality, amphibian monitoring, and, wetland monitoring, are all examples of citizen monitoring projects.  

Today’s technology helps citizen science to be realized faster and over larger scales. With technology it becomes possible for citizens to log-on to databases in the Internet and input their sightings with a spatial reference, Twitter, or join a Facebook citizen science group.

Technology can also help scientists to validate information collected by citizens and stay connected with participants. Dr Bonter’s work is done largely over the Internet. His team have developed ‘how to’ videos and help kits that can be sent to participants in the mail. This is key because citizen science should be a conversation between participants and scientists a two way street!

Volunteer efforts to improve local environments by participation in citizen science projects have been gaining momentum over the last 20 years . A few months ago BBC posted an article about the importance and future importance of citizen science as we see the decline in global biodiversity.

Dr Bonter agrees: "the last decade we have seen citizen science really explode in popularity. In the last 10-15 years there has been much concern about large-scale changes in the environment, for example climate change. We really need large data sets to address questions at this scale. Much of the good science that is out there, looking at changes in species ranges and that sort of thing, has come from citizen science programs. I almost see citizen science becoming a more integral part of the toolkit scientists use to help us learn about the natural world, I see the number of participants increasing and the range of projects for people to get involved with increasing.”

I had handed over the responsibility of bird-knower to my brother because he was a professional in this way. Roles are not so clear cut and just like my brother is both a scientist and a citizen, I too can be a bird expert in my own citizen way.

Note:  Images are photos of original pieces by the talented Annika Unterburg, an International artist based in Hamburg Germany

Cooper, C. B., J. Dickinson, T. Phillips, and R. Bonney. 2007. Citizen science as a tool for conservation in residential ecosystems. Ecology and Society 12(2): 11. [online] URL:

Evans, Celia, Eleanor Abrams, Robert Reitsma, Karin Roux, Laura Salmonsen, Peter Marra. 2005. The Neighborhood Nestwatch Program: Participant Outcomes of a Citizen-science Ecological Research Project. Conservation Biology Vol. 19, Issue 3, pages 589-594.

Lee, T., M. S. Quinn, and D. Duke. 2006. Citizen, science, highways, and wildlife: using a web-based GIS to engage citizens in collecting wildlife information. Ecology and Society 11(1): 11. [online] URL:

McCaffrey, Rachel E.(2005) Using Citizen Science in Urban Bird Studies. Urban Habitats, 3 (1). pp. 70-86.

Trumbull, Deborah, Rick Bonney, Derek Bascom, Anna Cabral. 2000. Thinking scientifically during participation in a citizen-science project. Science Education Vol. 84, Issue 2.


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