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Citizen science: a crucial role in research

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NEW WILMINGTON, Pa.– Until I took the Tweetspeak cluster course at Westminster College, I did not consider myself a scientist. I didn’t know how simple it was to get involved with citizen science, let alone what a citizen scientist is. Citizen Science Center defines citizen science as “ordinary people helping to conduct real scientific research.”

Science has always been my weak subject in school. It just never clicked with me until I took this course. I am by no means a scientific genius now, but I am more aware of the environment and how I can be a small part of  research to solve global scientific problems.

Tweetspeak uses the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird to contribute to scientific research. Ebird is essentially an online bird species checklist for recreational and professional ornithologists. It “documents the presence or absence of species” and all of the information is displayed visually in maps, graphs, and bar charts.

The process for entering information into eBird is as follows:

  • Citizen scientists take a notebook out in the field with them and record all bird species they see over the duration of a bird watch outing. Weather, habitat, and notes about each species observed are important to record too.
  • Log in to eBird or create and account.
  • Submit observations. This is where birders enter the location, date, time, and how many people were in their birding group the day of observation.
  • Enter the species observed. Not only should birders record the number of each species, but also the gender and age (if known) and other details about their observations. It’s helpful, for example, to record things like “Black-capped Chickadee – gathering nest materials.” Specific details like this make the data collected even more useful.

Data recorded in eBird is stored for an infinite amount of time. At any point, for the rest of my life, I can log in to eBird, and scroll through my list of species I have observed throughout the years. Data recorded over long periods of time is key for research, especially in animal populations. By looking at trends in data over many years, researchers can make conclusions on why or how populations are changing. This information is very important for programs like the IUCN Red List. This website assesses the conservation status of species across the globe, highlighting those species that are endangered or at risk of being endangered. Data collected by citizen scientists through websites like eBird contribute to the research that is used in this type of list. It is crucial that databases like the Red List are accurate and available to the public to raise awareness of endangered species.

One way Cornell and other organizations increase the amount of data collected is by initiating one-time or annual citizen science programs. Tweetspeak participated in one through eBird called the Great Backyard Bird Count. This program occurs every year around the middle of February for a period of four days. By setting a specific date, citizen science programs become competitive, fun, and collect an immense amount of data for research. Citizen science programs aren’t just for the birds. Other programs, like the Monarch Butterfly Journey North, get people involved by providing a downloadable app to collect data with. This technique makes collecting data easy and accessible for citizen scientists of any age.

Citizen science has proven to be very successful, but it’s only the beginning for this research tool. As stated before, long-term data collection is most useful, and eBird is only about 15 years old. Research done over a span of 30 years or more is desirable. With technology changing every day, there’s no telling where citizen science will go next. Our role in research is needed more now than ever, especially when it comes to birds. Birds are one of the most powerful ecological indicators in the world. They display the effects of climate change right before our eyes. The negative effects of climate change can’t be denied, and our help in solving the problem begins with citizen science.

Written by Katie Nicholson, Tweetspeak correspondent

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