Help Nature With Your Smartphone: Become a Citizen Scientist

Download some apps, grab the kids and then go birding. You can provide valuable data to scientists by tracking bird observations in your neighborhood.

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Bird watching can easily be turned into citizen science by keeping a bird list, making notes, recording observations and locations, and then logging in and sharing the information. Birders can also record data on the go by utilizing apps on their smart phones.

White-throated sparrows breed in the North but travel south for winter months. It is good to record times of appearance so that scientists can keep track of changes in migration.

Photo by: Rick Remy

Rick Remy

White-throated sparrows breed in the North but travel south for winter months. It is good to record times of appearance so that scientists can keep track of changes in migration.

Citizen science in birding is a way of crowdsourcing and organizing data to be combined with scientific research by ornithologists. Professionals and amateurs together can participate and contribute to the conservation of birds. In a rapidly changing world, it is important to have all hands and eyes on deck to monitor and track populations, the impacts of habitat destruction, the effects of climate change, and the subsequent changes in habitat and food source for birds.

In the late fall and winter, yellow-rumped warblers follow the food source, gobbling berries and insects along the way.

Photo by: Rick Remy

Rick Remy

In the late fall and winter, yellow-rumped warblers follow the food source, gobbling berries and insects along the way.

Depending on availability or scarcity of food sources, you might see an influx of a particular species where you live. This fall, I’ve seen more red-breasted nuthatches than I’ve ever seen before. Then my mom told me about an article that explained why. Because of a poor crop of spruce seeds in the northern coniferous forests, large numbers of red-breasted nuthatches and other seed-eating birds have left their northerly, high-elevation winter range to seek more productive feeding grounds in the South. An ornithologist friend shared the story with my mom around the same time we spotted my dad's favorite bird on my parents’ deck. Birders are in tune with noticing things out of the norm, changes that may affect birds, and this news travels fast. This sort of thing makes me realize how we are all connected in the natural world whether we realize it or not, and the care and communication between ordinary citizens give me hope. We all learn from each other, and we create solutions together as well.

Red-breasted nuthatches have been showing up in southern pine forests this fall and winter because of a seed shortage in their normal winter range.

Photo by: Rick Remy

Rick Remy

Red-breasted nuthatches have been showing up in southern pine forests this fall and winter because of a seed shortage in their normal winter range.

I recently joined birding friend, Rick Remy, at our local nature preserve for a walk in the woods. As we searched for birds, we talked about plants, the role humans have had in transporting plants from place to place, the impacts of humans to landscapes, and the consequential problems our actions have on birds and other wildlife. We talked about the importance and fun in participating in citizen science projects, in particular, eBird and iNaturalist. "They have proven to not only be valuable managers of field data but also providers of wonderful information and identification tools," Rick said. "Using the eBird app for instance, I can record my birding sightings at specific locations or over a specific route. The app not only tracks the distance traveled but also time spent. If I’m birding more than one route in a day, the app records the data for each and can also provide the cumulative total. Additionally, I can submit photos and sound recordings to document some sightings by call or song." As Rick punched the numbers on his smartphone as we talked, he identified several birds by sound. He would say, "There is a bluebird, a red-shouldered hawk, a white-breasted nuthatch, or a brown thrasher, and hear that eastern towhee?" Even though it didn't seem like a very birdy day, we ended up counting 245 birds and 36 species in a less than three hours.

As Rick walks, he looks for birds, listens for birdsong and records his observations on his eBird app.

As Rick walks, he looks for birds, listens for birdsong and records his observations on his eBird app.

Rick also says, "The benefits of participating in these various citizen science projects are indeed reciprocal. As data accumulates, population trends and movements become evident and research avenues broadened. In turn, the citizen science participant has an array of identification tools made available by the project. These can include visual and vocal comparisons, seasonal occurrences, color guides, habitat preferences, and even hotspots." When hotspots are revealed, birders often flock to the locations. It is a community that keeps on giving.

This is one of three pages of birding apps on Rick's phone. His thumbs are as busy as his eyes and ears when out in the field.

Photo by: Michelle Reynolds

Michelle Reynolds

This is one of three pages of birding apps on Rick's phone. His thumbs are as busy as his eyes and ears when out in the field.

The options for citizen science projects and bird identification apps can be overwhelming. Depending on the level of knowledge and interest, convenience and usability, phone storage availability, and the amount of time and effort you have to put into citizen science, there are many choices. I like having a combination of identification apps and project apps at my fingertips in the field, but then on my computer at home, I will utilize project websites for more in-depth information. Here is a list to get you started.

Bird ID Apps:

Bird identification apps are great for photos, songs, facts, maps, and they allow you to track your sightings.

Data Entry Apps:

With these data entry apps, you can explore birds, find hotspots, track lists, plug-in data, share information, and get feedback while in the field or at home.

Group Citizen Science Projects:

Teaming up with others to observe and record is always fun and enlightening. Beginners may join more experienced and expert birders to canvas and count along routes, and the data is compiled.

Citizen Science At Home:

Birdwatch and record your findings from the comfort of your own yard with these projects.

Sometimes, a bird list on paper is the way to go. Christmas Bird Count participants are given paper lists to mark. At the end of the day, group counts are compiled and entered by computer or mail, whichever method the compiler is comfortable with.

Photo by: Michelle Reynolds

Michelle Reynolds

Sometimes, a bird list on paper is the way to go. Christmas Bird Count participants are given paper lists to mark. At the end of the day, group counts are compiled and entered by computer or mail, whichever method the compiler is comfortable with.

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