Counting On It

Thank you to those who have taken part in an Audubon Christmas Bird Count! We’re grateful for your efforts, and if you missed the last one, please consider contributing your observations to the upcoming Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). The GBBC, like the Christmas Bird Count, is organized by the Audubon Society in collaboration with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. TWC will be hosting a GBBC event on February 16, 2019.

Bird surveys have been a long-standing cornerstone of what has now formally been identified as practicing “citizen science” (this was Audubon’s 119th year of Christmas count). Citizen science refers to scientific data collection, and even full-blown research projects, that are conducted primarily by non-scientist amateurs often working in concert with special interest groups such as Audubon, government agencies such as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and sometimes directly with an academic institution such as Cornell University. Other descriptions of citizen science include public participation in science or, as a sign of our social media time, crowd-sourced science.

Though the labels are relatively new, the practice of amateurs observing natural history phenomena and documenting results (or at least submitting raw data) has been around far longer than the now more-organized enterprise of professional science. Keep in mind that some of our most famous contributors to scientific knowledge, including Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin, did not make a living as professional scientists; rather they were considered self-funded “gentleman scholars.”

In the past decade, the role of citizen science has really begun to come into its own in the U.S.; note that many other regions, Europe in particular, have been much more receptive to amateur-derived data use in peer-reviewed science publication. Further, an old term has come back into common use to describe the type of data that has proven most useful toward helping professional researchers formulate models and hypotheses about nature, changes to our climate and ecosystems in particular. The term is “phenology” and it refers specifically to observed changes in plants and animals from season-to-season and year-to-year, namely as these changes relate to corresponding climate conditions. Some have put this specific study in context as a way of quantifying the temporal component of more tradition natural history observations. In other words, putting site- and species-based observations of events and behaviors into the greater context of a long-term trend. Either way, the collection and compilation of phenological data have really taken off in the past decade, in part aided by the ubiquity of mobile device apps such as iNaturalist and eBird.

Though numerous nature-oriented organizations are involved in citizen science projects, one organization has more or less evolved into the definitive clearinghouse for general phenology data collection and dissemination. The USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN) has gathered millions of data records from hundreds of local affiliates, involving hundreds of thousands of volunteer citizen scientists from all over the country. USA-NPN manages the popular Nature’s Notebook data collection and upload platform. Currently, the USA-NPN is working with similar organizations in other countries to form a comprehensive international platform for citizen science-derived data.

Last month our federal government published the second volume of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a comprehensive report on the current state of climate change as it affects the United States. This report is endorsed by 13 different governmental agencies, among them NOAA, NASA, USDA, EPA, Department of Energy and the Department of Defense. Phenology is now highlighted in the Assessment as a “key indicator of the effects of climate change on ecological communities.” Specifically, USA-NPN’s Spring Indices (derived from crowd-sourced nationwide observations) were featured in the report to illustrate the alarming shift to earlier spring leaf-out and bloom across much of the country. Indeed, some citizen-collected data are now being taken quite seriously as strong evidence of the potential ecological impacts of a changing climate. Some of these observations are being used to help inform decision making with regard to potential severity of western fire seasons, agricultural drought conditions and prevalence of tick and/or mosquito-borne diseases.

Now is a great time to join us in our efforts to not only understand our natural world, but to contribute directly to that understanding by adding to the ever-growing body of data and research that helps inform us all about our environment. Consider our upcoming Nature Journal: Tracking Change series as a good start (details on back cover.) We’re counting on it!

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