Citizen Science …: The Democratization of Researching the Natural World

Story and photos by Sarah Vance

I used to take a lot of selfies, but then I started noticing the natural environment around me.

You could say the change was incremental — beginning with the flight patterns of birds; the sounds of a muskrat excavating the shoreline, and the arrival of migrating ducks on a York River stop-over.

Pine Grosbeaks are enucleators, which refers to a feeding style of removing the pulp of a berry in order to get to the seed inside. Pine Grosbeaks are migrating finches and are attracted to Crab Apple trees where they will remain as a flock until the food is depleted before moving on.

Pine Grosbeaks are enucleators, which refers to a feeding style of removing the pulp of a berry in order to get to the seed inside. Pine Grosbeaks are migrating finches and are attracted to Crab Apple trees where they will remain as a flock until the food is depleted before moving on.

I mean, have you ever noticed a Pine Grosbeak fanning its plumage in the sunlight?

In November, when my girls and I found a flock of eight of these magnificent birds landing on the crabapple tree outside of our kitchen window, the change took hold.

It was a magical few weeks, as we watched the finches roll the jelly from little apples, smashing them up against the branches and regurgitating the pulp onto the snow in a blanket of red around the tree. Grosbeaks don’t actually eat the pulp of the berry, but search for the seed inside, while hanging upside down and dancing along the branches. It was noticeable that they travelled with a mate, although we noticed that there was a significant pecking order.

But then, when, isn’t there?

Watching these winter guests, my girls and I didn’t have to Wikipedia any of our questions, because the answers were being directly translated to us — by the birds doing what they do, and just being who they are.

Without even realizing it, it was those grosbeaks who gave me my first real taste of citizen science.

Citizen science or citizen scientists, as it is often referred to, is an umbrella term given to every- day people who are documenting the behavior’s and patterns of the wildlife that they see around them in the natural world. Often this happens in organic and grass roots ways and these efforts are having a direct and measurable impact on the world around them.

Woodpeckers are the birds that are responsible for those rolling, drum like patterns that can sometimes be heard in marshes, woodlands and downtown Bancroft. These intuitive birds seem to know exactly where to hammer their beaks to find carpenter ants.

Woodpeckers are the birds that are responsible for those rolling, drum like patterns that can sometimes be heard in marshes, woodlands and downtown Bancroft. These intuitive birds seem to know exactly where to hammer their beaks to find carpenter ants.

While the grosbeaks were my entry-point into backyard science, it was when I shared photos of the birds by email with my home’s previous owner when I realized that I was, to say the least, late to the party. ...

“I thought the girls and you would enjoy the Pine Grosbeaks,” came her sweet reply.

This was my wake-up-call because coming into our fourth year of living beside this crabapple tree and in this beautiful home, I had to admit that I had not noticed the grosbeak migration pattern, despite the fact that their migration had clearly predated me, and was going strong.

This simple act of noticing is, put loosely, the first and most fundamental step of citizen science.

Citizen scientists notice the world around them, and can tell you about it in ways that are grounded in lived, experiential research. Sometimes noticing involves documentation with photography, or participating in a planned species count and then sharing this information with others. But citizen science can also be a quiet, personal and introspective experience.

While my accidental encounter with backyard science has become a spring-board for writing ecology into my family’s narrative and fostering our pride of place, for others citizen science is about building a community of friends and supporters who spend time together as nature participants.

A group of 12 citizen scientist volunteers gathered at the Fish and Game Club, and within two hours they assembled more than eight bat nurseries and over 15 bluebird nesting boxes

A group of 12 citizen scientist volunteers gathered at the Fish and Game Club, and within two hours they assembled more than eight bat nurseries and over 15 bluebird nesting boxes

In March, when the Bancroft Field Naturalists hosted a gathering at the Fish and Game Club to build nesting boxes, the magic of “community in noticing” was evident.

A “natural” literacy permeated the room and floated above the sounds of drilling and hammering, as bat nurseries and bluebird nesting boxes were constructed.

“The salamanders are late this year, but should be running next week.”

“What happened to the Gray Jays — they seem to have gone away? I had exactly 11 this time last year.”

“There are eagles at Diamond Lake this week and there is a pair of them.”

Environmental awareness is one way of describing it. Although content area literacy, might be more appropriate. Rest assured however, that whatever you call it, citizen scientists have it in droves and they express it in ways that are organic, authentic, and experiential.

A sample of three finished boxes.

A sample of three finished boxes.

Being new to the game, I didn’t realize that I was supposed to bring a hammer to the Fish and Game Club, but one was given to me, and within two hours, 12 volunteers had assembled more than eight bat nurseries and over 15 bluebird nesting boxes, like professionals.

And while working, (sometimes on their hands and knees), these volunteers never once stopped to talk about new movie releases; or what other people were up to — they just discussed the bats and birds as if it was their employ and field of knowledge.

And this is because citizen science is their knowledge and employ, despite the other jobs they do from 9 to 5.

Listening to these conversations that offered a vast and meticulous local way of knowing, they showed me how their involvement is quietly and gently, protecting the ecological sustainability of our region.

In recent years, bat populations have declined as a result of White Nose Syndrome, a condition that develops when bats try to feed too early in the season. This leads to bats that were essentially starving to death from depleted energy levels as a result of being out of synch with their environment. These units built by the Bancroft Field Naturalist volunteers will provide homes for over 800 bats, which actually use designated nurseries within their family systems.

Beavers are the second largest rodent in the world, and their teeth never stop growing, which makes their unpopular gnawing upon trees a biological necessity for survival. A national animal of Canada, once they were heavily hunted for food, fur and pelts, but with the decrease in hunting their population has increased.

Beavers are the second largest rodent in the world, and their teeth never stop growing, which makes their unpopular gnawing upon trees a biological necessity for survival. A national animal of Canada, once they were heavily hunted for food, fur and pelts, but with the decrease in hunting their population has increased.

If there are qualities that set citizen scientists apart from the colloquial, “average Joes,” it is their ecological literacy, accompanied by often strong ideas and actions, about how humans need to begin situating themselves in a balance with nature if everyone is going to survive. The fact that citizen scientists are not the holders of PHD’s, research fellowships, or associate titles makes us all just a bunch of “average Joes.”

That being said, it is the citizen scientists’ field research that is being highly sought after by academia, and is now integral to post-secondary research. Furthermore, backyard counts are providing direct contributions to the direction of environmental policy.

In April, I decided to go global.

It happened in Bancroft, on Chemaushgon Road when I participated in a “Great Backyard Bird Count.” These are annual events hosted on-line and throughout communities, within specific timeframes, by local and national organizations, such as Bird Studies and Bird Watch Canada.

During a backyard bird count, or a feeder watch as these events are sometimes called, participants simply observe, count, and document the wildlife activities in their yard as they occur.

The Blue Jay’s feathers are not actually blue. This appearance is the result of the inner structure of the feathers, which distort the reflection of light off the bird, making it look blue. The black crest along its neck is used as a communication tool, and defense mechanism. Blue Jays can sometimes sound like Hawks, and they warn other birds of predators with their sharp piercing sounds.

The Blue Jay’s feathers are not actually blue. This appearance is the result of the inner structure of the feathers, which distort the reflection of light off the bird, making it look blue. The black crest along its neck is used as a communication tool, and defense mechanism. Blue Jays can sometimes sound like Hawks, and they warn other birds of predators with their sharp piercing sounds.

Participants are then encouraged to share their findings, using social networks such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, iNaturalist, or other websites set-up specifically by the host research group.

Admittedly, species identification was a barrier for me getting started. Living on the York River, it is easy to snap pictures of wildlife, but it is definitely more difficult to correctly identify an animal.

This is where apps and online tools such as iNaturalist.org can become vital entry-points for both beginning adults and children.

Within a few moments of uploading my first photo to iNaturalist, the species was identified by another user, and cross-referenced with other sightings. A few more clicks and I could access data showing a map of pin-pointed observations across the continent, as they happen, sorted by frequency, duration, gender and size.

You name it — it’s there. And if you can’t name the wildlife you are seeing, this app can help.

Robins are very territorial birds, and it is estimated that ten percent of them die defending territory from other Robins. They are also very prolific, living on every continent. Robins may find several mates in a season, and the male takes an active role in feeding the female as she nests.

Robins are very territorial birds, and it is estimated that ten percent of them die defending territory from other Robins. They are also very prolific, living on every continent. Robins may find several mates in a season, and the male takes an active role in feeding the female as she nests.

On-line tools are also great ways to get actively involved in monitoring the environment, while appreciating it and building a community of sharing around preservation and stewardship. These tools have the further effect of democratizing science, by giving voice to the citizens who live within and through nature and allowing for environmental fellowship and solidarity.

After one short season of “bird watching,” or ornithology as it is called, my whole concept about how I fit into the greater dynamics of my backyard, and consequently, into a community of animate and inanimate others, has incurred a significant paradigm shift.

And as one citizen to another, this summer, as you are walking the trails; raking leaves; or even sitting on your balcony high above the city skyline, I encourage you to keep your camera handy. Take some photos of what you see. Share them. Or strike up a conversation.

Nature, my friends, has been noticing you. And today, more than ever, nature needs your eyes, and ears, and voices.