August 2017: Citizen Scientists

~by Virginia Rhys-Anson, OFS

Citizen scientists are a tremendous asset to environmental scientists. Through their volunteer efforts, they provide much needed data that aids in tracking environmental changes, migration alterations, species decline—basically a wide range of scientific endeavors. They provide much more needed information than scientists and naturalists have the time or person power to collect.

Citizen science offers an array of projects for those desiring to create a more promising future for our environment, nature, and wildlife—and, in so doing, for humanity. Projects range from counting birds to tagging Monarchs to monitoring waterways for pollutants to tracking weather patterns.

Cornell University offers a wide range of projects, most pertaining to the bird population, including Feeder Watch, Nest Watch, Great Backyard Count, Bird Sleuth, and Habitat Network.

Citizen scientist projects span national and specific areas within the United States as well as global locations. Starting with the Cornell Labs projects, the citizen scientist menu offers quite a menagerie to feed the amateur scientist palate.

Feeder Watch

From November through February, volunteers count individual birds within each species that visit their backyard feeders. These numbers are then recorded with the Cornell labs.

Nest Watch

Nest Watch data helps scientists keep track of the breeding of various bird species throughout the United States. Volunteers report nest locations, habitat, bird species, and the number of eggs in each nest.

Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC)

Cornell Labs has joined with the Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada in the use of volunteers to help in documenting over half of the bird species throughout the world.

Wildlife Watch

Cornell Lab’s Wildlife Watch is geared toward young volunteer naturalists (K-12), photographers, hikers, families, and individuals. The main goals are to teach citizen scientist skills to volunteers and to get youth interested and active in nature. Participants get experience with plants and animals within their natural environments.

Bird Sleuth

This project might be ideal for the K-12 classroom. It is a science curriculum that teaches children concepts of scientific study and data collection. Curriculum modules teach youth to act like real scientists—“asking questions, collecting data, looking for patterns and evidence, testing ideas, drawing conclusions, and sharing results.” (

Habitat Network

The Habitat Network was designed for those who wish to assist wildlife by creating a wildlife friendly habitat either in their own yards or their places of employment. Volunteers map out the landscape and then, either solo or likely with others, create a wildlife ecosystem. This project enjoys the joint efforts of Cornell Labs and the Nature Conservancy.

Backyard Habitat

The National Wildlife Federation has designed a similar project wherein volunteers, concentrating on at least one species of wildlife, create a habitat in their yard for that particular species—birds, butterflies, frogs, any given wildlife species. Once the four basic elements—food, water, protection, and a place to raise their young—have been supplied for at least one species, the yard can be registered with the National Wildlife Federation as a backyard habitat.

Outside of Cornell Labs, a vast and diversified collection of opportunities exists for citizen scientists. Among them:

Butterfly Habitat

The North American Butterfly Association (NABA) entices those so inclined to create either a Monarch garden or a butterfly garden. Once the proper criteria are met, including the inclusion of host plants, a person can certify the garden with NABA. As an added benefit, butterfly gardens also serve the needs of pollinators such as hummingbirds and bees. Sadly, some species of bees and butterflies are finding that their populations are greatly diminishing.

Wildlife Health Event Reporter

Volunteers report any sick or dead animals that they may find. Reports will allow professionals to contain the potential transmission of wildlife disease to either other wildlife, human beings, or domestic animals. The project also provides a Health Map mobile app for smart phone users.

Bumble Bee Watch

The Xerces Society uses volunteers to help monitor and track five bumble bee species. Volunteers report their bumble bee sightings including photos, latitude and longitude of the site, time, and date.

Vanessa Migration Project

Through this Iowa State University Information System project, citizen scientists in North American report their sightings of Red Admirals and Painted Lady butterflies. Reports include location, date, and the direction of the butterfly flight. The project is intended to monitor these butterflies and their yearly season distribution, track migration patterns, and study the potential effects of climate and weather changes on the habits of the butterflies.

Ice Watch USA

Citizen Scientist volunteers assist professional scientists in the monitoring and study of the ways in which our climate is changing. Volunteers pick a location, usually a lake, river, bay, or other waterway, to observe over the winter. They then report their findings and observations for analysis in determining the climate changes in various regions of the U.S.

Citizen Weather Observing Program

Volunteers provide weather data in real-time to the U.S. National Weather Service and its MADIS System. It is overseen by the National Weather Service National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA).

Annual Midwest Crane Count

This project concentrates on six Midwestern states—Wisconsin and parts of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota. Around mid-April, volunteer counts target Whooping Crane and Sandhill Crane sightings.

Audubon Christmas Bird Count

From December 14 through January 5, Audubon sets one particular day for a given local area aside for volunteers to count every bird they see and hear throughout the day. Counters don’t break their count down to species or the number of birds within that species. All birds are counted. Volunteers must find their specific area headquarters (circle) and make arrangements ahead of time in order to participate.

Mountain Watch

The Mountain Watch project, the undertaking of the Appalachian Mountain Club, allows hikers to monitor and report the date that the alpine and mountain forest flowers bud and flower. Volunteers also document the air quality at mountain vistas. With the data collected, researchers can better understand “how and by what magnitude the biota on the mountain are responding to observed statistical changes in climate.”

GLOBE at Night

This project is sponsored by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory International in order to make the public aware of the effects of light pollution on wildlife and nature. Volunteers record the level of brightness on the night sky and post their observations to a world map online. For two weeks in February or March, when the moon is not visible during early evening and the Orion constellation is visible, citizen scientists record specific criteria and then submit their findings to also include date, time, and location.

Noise Pollution

Noise pollution is a much troubling element that is compromising nature, wildlife, and humanity. This area of monitoring seems to be in its infancy. Our editor, Susi, did manage to find an outlet or two for citizen scientists in this realm as well. Perusing the sites, Noise Free America seems to offer the most viable opportunities for citizen scientists. At the end of this column, I will include its web address along with the others that offer more information on the topic. I have managed to find an interesting endeavor that is well worth a gander—One Square Inch of Silence.

Although this column concentrates on only a spattering of projects within the United States, there are a good number available both nationwide and in other countries of the world. Citizen scientists are a vital component for the welfare and future of our natural world and its inhabitants. It is also loads of fun for those of us not scientifically trained to be able to contribute our efforts and, in the process, to learn much more about our natural world.

God created humans to be stewards of His creation. Thus far, humanity as a species has significantly failed in this responsibility. Citizen scientists and other like-minded people are working diligently to reverse this trend and, once again, create a human species that will actually function as the steward of the nature and wildlife with which God has so generously blessed us.

For more information, peruse these websites:


Virginia Anson grew up in the shadows of Sandia Crest in New Mexico. Family camping trips may have sparked her passion for nature. She holds an A.S. in Electronics Technology, a B.A. in Writing, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, and a certificate in Wildlife/Forestry Conservation. Her book, Mother Earth’s Caretakers, targets middle school youngsters and is published as an e-book for Kindle. Virginia is a Vietnam Era veteran of the U.S. Air Force, and her volunteer endeavors see her as a lector, Eucharistic minister, and sacristan in her parish and as a habitat steward for the National Wildlife Federation. She especially cherishes her life in the Secular Franciscan Order, following in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi.


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