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3 Great Ways to Participate in Citizen Science


Sign up with Monarch Watch to tag migrating butterflies either on your own or with your school/organization.

Even if you are not a trained scientist, you can still make valuable contributions as a citizen scientist. Citizen science refers to a collaborative effort to collect and analyze data about the natural world, using observations submitted by regular people. Here are three examples of how you can start your "career" as a citizen scientist today.

Citizen science efforts

Citizen science, also known as community science or crowd-source science, is a big deal. Many efforts are centered within universities, government agencies, or independent nonprofit organizations. Professional scientists and researchers often have big questions that require huge amounts of data that they do not have the time, personnel, or resources to collect themselves. How can they conduct their studies? Well, they recruit everyday people, provide (usually minimal) training, and build some kind of data tracking or submission infrastructure to collect the information provided by participants.

Citizen science studies can be focused on any topic, but those requiring widespread, real-time observations of the natural world are perhaps the oldest and most common. Studies include wildlife migration, wildlife census counts, aspects of climate change, seasonal phenomena, astronomy, and oceanography, among others.

Why participate?

As a citizen scientist, you are contributing to a cause larger than yourself. It might give you a reason to regularly get outside and go for a walk. It may be a social opportunity to meet with others who share your interests. Perhaps you always wanted to be a scientist or naturalist, but do not have the formal training. Participating in citizen science can give you experience in your favorite field, and perhaps be a stepping stone into a career you hadn't considered before. It is also a great way to get your kids involved in the natural world, and to hone your family's observational skills. Plus, it's a great way to learn more about the world around you, to connect more deeply with nature, and to have fun while doing good.

1. Join eBird and log your birdwatching observations


The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's eBird project is not only for experienced birders. Amateur birders can create an account and log birding observations. One of the many great things about this program is that, as a participant, you can explore the data collected by everyone across the country and around the world. You can check out local lists submitted by other birders, and look for birding hotspots. It's also a great way to document and store your birding life list.

Signing up for an account is very easy, and submitting data can be done via the eBird mobile app or by filling out an online checklist on the computer. If you are a budding birder, you can look up information on any bird species on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's related site, All About Birds

eBird is perfect for everyone from expert birders to kids just learning to bird. When you go outside, whether it is specifically to birdwatch, or you happen to notice an unusual bird, you submit the species and number observed in eBird. If you are on a birding walk, you keep a list of how many of each kind of bird you see. In eBird, you can note whether you are unsure about the species or number, or whether it's a male or female. You also record the location, time of day, whether you are doing a full census, and how many people are in your birding party. Every list you submit is stored under your account, so you can go back to see what you recorded from your very first list.

2. Nature's Notebook - Phenology Observations


Nature's Notebook is a citizen science project that collects and tracks data on seasonal changes in the plant and animal worlds. The study of such seasonal changes is called phenology, and I wrote more about keeping your own phenology calendar here. Nature's Notebook is a project of the USA National Phenology Network, headquartered at the University of Arizona.

When you sign up to participate in Nature's Notebook, you will choose at least one site, plant, or natural phenomena to study. After going through a quick training protocol, you are ready to go forth and observe. For example, you might choose to observe the flowering dogwood tree in your front yard. Observations would entail visiting the tree on a regular basis to observe bud swell, bud break, leaf emergence, fruit formation, leaf drop, and the like. As with eBird, you submit observations online through their website or a mobile app.

Phenology data is used by researchers to develop climate change models, and to help predict wildfires, drought, or flooding. It is also used for decision-making purposes, such as when to irrigate, when to pursue fire management techniques, when to mow, or when to harvest certain crops. By participating, you will learn a great deal about your subject and become the local resident expert on phenology near you!

3. Tag monarchs for Monarch Watch


There is nothing more fun and fascinating than catching migrating monarch butterflies in the fall and carefully placing tags on their wings before releasing them to continue their journey. It's a miraculous journey, too. Every year, all of the monarchs in North America migrate to one of two locations: all those on the east of the Rocky Mountains travel south to a site in the mountains of Mexico; and all of the monarchs west of the Rocky Mountains fly to to a few specific groves of trees on the California coast.

No other butterfly in the world makes such a long migratory journey - up to 3,000 miles. Over the course of several generations the following spring, monarchs again spread northward to populate the North American continent, reaching as far north as Canada. 

Monarch Watch is an affiliate of the Kansas Biological Survey, housed within the University of Kansas. They coordinate the national citizen science monarch tagging and migration tracking effort. Anyone can participate, either by submitting observations of monarchs, or by requesting tags and submitting tagging data. Many schools participate in the tagging program, since it is a wonderful activity for children.

In order to take part in tagging, you must request the tags (tiny, round stickers, each with an individual serial number) before August or so. A small donation is required to cover the costs of administering the program. Next, you wait until migration season (which varies, depending on your latitude - monarchs start their journeys earlier in the northern part of their range than they do in the south). Find yourself a butterfly net, and you are ready to tag! 

Contrary to stories we were told as children, it is possible to catch and handle a butterfly without rubbing its scales off and rendering it unable to fly. There are special handling techniques to follow, which are provided in the materials you'll receive from Monarch Watch. You will also learn how to tell males and females apart. Be sure to note the tag's serial number, date, butterfly gender, and location when you record your tagging data.


A pair of mating monarchs. The male has its wings open (look for the dark spot along a black vein on its lower wing). The female has wider veins, and is in the foreground with her wings closed.

Once you have used up your tags, or the migration season ends, you send in your data to Monarch Watch. Sometime the following spring, you can check their website, where they post tag recovery data. Others who observe tagged butterflies and submit their findings could find "your" butterflies. Monarch Watch works with the Mexican community near the overwintering site and pays local people to collect dead butterflies and search for tags, in order to report their findings. In this way, they know when and where that butterfly traveled on its migration journey. Pretty cool stuff.

Oh, and one more thing: if you want to be sure to have butterflies to tag, you can collect monarch eggs or caterpillars and rear them in your home or classroom. The caterpillars will metamorphose from caterpillar (larva) into a chrysalis (pupa), and finally emerge as an adult butterfly (called an imago). As long as you have an airy cage with water and milkweed leaves for food, it is easy to rear monarchs. Once they reach adult stage, you can easily tag and release them. These reared butterflies can also be reported through Monarch Watch.

If tagging seems like too much for you to start, you can also simply submit your monarch sightings online through Journey North. There, you can look at maps of others' sightings in real time, to see the current status of the monarch migration each year.

Go forth and observe

The three citizen science programs listed here are just the start. If you are keen to become a volunteer scientist, Google citizen science and see what comes up. There may be more local opportunities available to you as well. I will write another article soon about a couple more citizen science efforts here on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Have fun, and let me know how it goes.


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