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Cori Brown: You too can be a citizen scientist

Project Feederwatch welcomes your citizen science participation from November through early April.
Project Feederwatch welcomes your citizen science participation from November through early April. (Cori Brown photo)

Like all kids, we have dreams of what we want to be when we grow up. In my case, I wanted to be an archeologist. I was fascinated by ancient cultures and the idea of digging up priceless artifacts.

It soon became apparent though that I was not cut out for this kind of work. I came to this realization when I discovered that I was not very good at science or math.

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Math in particular was a vexing subject. I barely made C’s through high school, and even got a D in college in statistics. The professor’s strange habit of erasing the blackboard with her hands and then wiping her hands on her clothes became too much of a distraction for me. I just couldn’t pay attention to all the number theories she was trying to cram in my head while chalk dust billowed all around her.

By the end of every class, she had hand prints all over her skirt. It was crazy!

Science was not much better. In high school, we had the requisite frog dissection, which I found totally gross. I loved wildlife from an early age but preferred to see it in living and breathing color.

Chemistry was even worse. Thank God I had an incredibly kind and understanding teacher, who in a strange twist of fate, pointed me in the right direction to my real career choice, that of park ranger.

Being a park ranger allowed me to showcase some of my best skills, including writing and interpretation. Nature walks and trail guides were more my speed. In a way, I came full circle in that math and science were always present in my work, but on a different level.

Ironically, late in my work career I took on environmental compliance auditing, which as you can imagine, involved lots of science and math. Patient and kind mentors helped me along and it turned out to be quite challenging and fun.

I’ve been retired almost seven years now. I know that a second career as scientist is not in the cards, but I can still be a citizen scientist.

You may have read about the Great Backyard Bird Count in last week’s paper. It’s just one example of the of many citizen science projects that ordinary people like you and me can participate in.

What is citizen science? It’s part of an ever-widening initiative to engage people in public participation in scientific research or PPSR. Well over 1,100 programs exist globally where people volunteer to gather data for various research endeavors. Instead of a few scientists working on a project, now we can harness the power of thousands of people to observe, collect, monitor and inquire about subjects ranging from weather observations to butterfly populations, measuring light pollution to creating 3-D models of stellar streams in the Milky Way.

The beauty of these programs is 1) you don’t have to be a brainiac; 2) you join people from all over the world who share common interests; 3) you are at the forefront of cutting-edge technology; and 4) the information you share could help make our world a better place.

Join Nestwatch to monitor nests like this one belonging to a chickadee.
Join Nestwatch to monitor nests like this one belonging to a chickadee. (Cori Brown photo)

I already participate in several projects, including the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, Project Feederwatch, the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), and a new one for me starting this spring, Nestwatch.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, who sponsors NestWatch, the program is “a nationwide monitoring program designed to track status and trends in the reproductive biology of birds, including when nesting occurs, number of eggs laid, how many eggs hatch, and how many hatchlings survive.”

The data collected is used to “study the current condition of breeding bird populations and how they may be changing over time as a result of climate change, habitat degradation and loss, expansion of urban areas, and the introduction of non-native plants and animals.”

All the information to participate in Nestwatch is online at nestwatch.org/ including plans for bird houses, how to install a nest cam, how to deal with competitors and predators, what to do about invasive species such as house sparrows and starlings and so much more. If you have a smart phone, you can record your information in real time.

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Best of all, this is an activity you can do with your kids and grandkids.

This week I will be cleaning out my nest boxes, lining them with dry pine needles (if I can find some in this damp weather), making sure they are in tiptop shape and preparing to collect my data. We all have the chance to be science heroes in our own small ways and this will be mine.

Spring is coming and so are the birds! Make sure you are ready with whatever citizen science project you might choose to do. Check out these two websites for a list of projects available for you — en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_citizen_science_projects; and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zooniverse.

While you’re at it, take time to celebrate UN World Wildlife Day today. Get outside and enjoy the diversity of wild flora and fauna in our own backyards and learn how we can protect them for future generations.

Red-winged blackbirds, harbingers of spring, are already back!
Red-winged blackbirds, harbingers of spring, are already back! (Cori Brown photo)
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