Wisconsin residents of all ages and backgrounds are tracking wolves, monitoring streams, banding birds, counting invasive plants and more—all in the name of “citizen science”
By Denise Thornton
Citizen science shows its true power in providing information not only over large areas but also about big phenomena. One example is climate change. Benjamin Zuckerberg recently joined CALS’ Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology after spending three years at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, a national leader in citizen science. As a research associate in citizen science, he analyzed data from Project FeederWatch, which compiles the observations of volunteer bird watchers who have been regularly logging what they see at their feeders every winter since 1990.
One of Zuckerberg’s students, Gavin Jones, is using Project FeederWatch data to study the early arrival of wintering birds in Wisconsin. Jones has found that over the past 20 years, robins have been coming back from their wintering grounds earlier and earlier.
“We have been seeing these kinds of shifts,” Zuckerberg says. “What’s interesting is that they are so dramatic at this point. We will be looking at more species throughout the Midwest to see what species are more or less likely to track changes in climate.”
Zuckerberg plans to draw upon information from Cornell’s eBird Program, which is based on sightings that volunteers from all around the world submit from their smartphones. “At this point eBird is getting anywhere from 2 to 3 million entries a month,” he says.
Zuckerberg is looking forward to bringing more citizen science to bear upon climate change studies in Wisconsin.
“I collaborate pretty closely with several Cornell scientists, and I am now working with climatologists on campus here,” says Zuckerberg. “The Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts was a huge incentive for me to come here. The University of Wisconsin system is a model for looking collaboratively at the effect of climate change on natural resources, as well as having a long tradition of citizen science. We plan to set up more volunteer groups here focused on monitoring the effects of climate change.”
For citizen science projects to work, both volunteers and the scientists working with them need to be happy. Some researchers have been hesitant to take advantage of citizen scientists because they are concerned about the quality and accuracy of volunteer- collected data.
As projects like eBird demonstrate, advancements in the smartphone are beginning to ease those concerns. Scientists are developing apps that can answer volunteers’ questions in the field and document their observations. A good example is WeBIRD, a smartphone app that identifies birds by their call, thus letting citizen scientists know which bird they are listening to. Its creator, CALS animal science professor Mark Berres, is applying for funding to use the new tool to monitor birds at the UW Arboretum.
“WeBIRD takes the guesswork out of species identification,” Berres says. “The user records the call from the bird they want to identify, which verifies the siting, and then WeBIRD identifies the bird. It gives the volunteer immediate feedback. It’s like having an expert in the woods with you.” Similar techniques are being used to photograph and identify many kinds of plants and animals, and more are being developed.
A continuing attraction of citizen science is the learning process. For many volunteers, apps will not replace in-person training by professionals and seasoned volunteers like Mara McDonald, an assistant administrator in the CALS department of genetics and a trained ornithologist. McDonald helps run a bird-banding program on Biocore Prairie near Picnic Point, where she coordinates the efforts of other citizen scientists.
Through weekly bird netting and banding over the past dozen years, McDonald and her fellow citizen scientists have demonstrated that bird diversity increases in restored prairie, even if that land is less than two acres in size. “We were able to show within four years that there was a positive effect on bird diversity in the prairie. It’s been an exciting little piece of work,” McDonald says.
Tags: citizen science, Denise Thornton, Dietram Scheufele, Environment, Kris Stepenuck, Mark Berres, monitoring, Water Action Volunteers
Posted in Communities, Environment, Featured, Summer 2012 | 5 Comments »