Put your time in the garden to good use … for science!
Story and Photography by Allan Pulley
Citizen science, also known as public volunteers assisting in scientific research, is open to anyone with a little time and interest in learning and participating in real-world scientific research projects. These programs, and there are many, help scientists broaden their data collection through the interaction of willing volunteers in various locations around the world – even in our own backyards! There are many citizen science projects and many new ones come out every year; there’s surely something for everyone.
What group of people is better suited for citizen science than gardeners? Especially because many citizen science projects are in some way related to the outdoors – such as pollinators and insects, birds, frogs, and many more. Many of these citizen science projects involve gathering data that we, as gardeners, already take note of in our journals or mentally monitor in our own gardens. The only step left is to document and log it in. It can be a fun and rewarding undertaking. I encourage all gardeners to look into one or more of these programs and become citizen scientist!
IN THE GARDEN
If you are into frogs like I am, this citizen science program will definitely interest you!
FrogWatch USA is a citizen science program by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) that provides individuals, groups, and families an opportunity to learn about local frogs and wetlands in their own backyards and communities. Data is reported on the sightings and calls of frogs and toads. More information on this project can be found at aza.org/frogwatch.
FOR THE BIRDS
If you enjoy watching and attracting birds like myself there are several really good projects.
Great Backyard Bird Count
Started in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) was the first online citizen science project to collect data on birds and to display results in near real-time. Today, hundreds of thousands of birdwatchers of all ages worldwide participate in the four-day count in February to create an annual snapshot of the distribution and abundance of birds. To learn more about the GBBC, visit gbbc.birdcount.org.
Christmas Bird Count
Similar to the GBBC where birds are counted and reported, the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) differs in that it is more of a community-based project. Christmas Bird Counts are conducted between mid-December and early January each year. It is a longstanding program of the National Audubon Society. It is an early-winter bird census, where volunteers across the U.S., Canada, and many countries go out over a 24-hour period on one calendar day to count birds. Volunteers cover a 15-mile area, tallying every bird seen or heard throughout the day. Volunteers don’t need any previous birdwatching experience, and can participate in as many counts as they like. To participate in a local group near you or start your own, learn more here: audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count.
Project Feeder Watch
Project FeederWatch is a winter survey of birds that visit backyard feeders. Feeder Watchers periodically count the birds they see at their feeders from November through early April and send their tallies to Project FeederWatch. This data helps scientists track widescale movements of winter bird populations and trends in bird distribution and abundance. Anyone interested in birds can participate, no matter your age or skill level. Birds can be counted as often as every week, or as infrequently as you like, and the schedule is completely flexible. All you need is a bird feeder, birdbath, or plantings that attract birds. Learn more by visiting feederwatch.org.
INSECTS AND POLLINATORS
Spotting fireflies is a fun part of warm summer nights, but lately they seem to be disappearing from our landscape and gardens. The Museum of Science in Boston has teamed up with several other colleges to track these amazing insects. This is an awesome project to get the kids involved in. Find out more her legacy.mos.org/fireflywatch.
Monarch Watch is a citizen-science project that involves volunteers across the United States and Canada who tag individual butterflies to assist scientists in studying and monitoring monarch populations and their fall migration. The tagging program helps answer questions about the geographic origins of monarchs that reach Mexico, the timing and pace of the migration, mortality during migration, and changes in geographic distribution. Learn more by visiting monarchwatch.org.
North American Butterfly Association Butterfly Counts
The North American Butterfly Association has run the Butterfly Count Program in the United States, Canada, and Mexico since 1993. Similar to the Christmas Bird Count, butterflies are observed and counted by a group of volunteers within a 15-mile area over a one-day period. The published reports provide a tremendous amount of information about the distribution and population sizes of the species counted. Results help monitor changes in butterfly populations and study the effects of weather and habitat change on North American butterflies. Learn how to participate by visiting naba.org/butter_counts.html.
These are just a few of the examples that gardeners may be interested in. There are more available to choose from with a little research. Although your time commitment may be small, your efforts will provide valuable data to scientist and research that will help make a difference in the long run.