Citizen Science This Fall

By Bob Engel
Marlboro College Professor Emeritus of Biology and Environmental Science

How can a non-scientist do science?  It’s actually pretty easy. Go somewhere that makes sense, collect data in a prescribed and systematic way, and (preferably) do it for a lot of years. Sounds easy enough, but I can’t tell you how many times this fails. A good example is what the State of New Hampshire did years ago with a study of plankton diversity and abundance in the many, many ponds in the state.

I had a student working on phytoplankton diversity in South Pond up here in Marlboro. We were drooling over the New Hampshire data. But when we got our hands on it, we found it useless because there was nothing systematic about its collection. Each pond was sampled in different ways and at different times of the spring and summer. And then the same mistakes were made the next year. There was no continuity, even for the same pond, year to year. What a waste of person hours! 

So that’s the primary issue with citizen science: people doing wonderful things — on top of their day jobs — without clear organization, orientation, or oversight.
There are two wonderful examples of citizen science that have gotten rid of most of the kinks: one is the deeply committed effort on Putney Mountain to monitor raptors as they sail south for the winter; the other is the Audubon Christmas Count held each year on a Saturday in December. Both have been going on for years, and both are invaluable because of this longevity.

Very few “real” scientists can study the same thing over the long haul. The money they need to work is doled out for new approaches, new subjects, new ideas. New is the operative word.

Ironically, however, “old” often tells us a lot more. In a changing world, either because every year is just different from every other or because there is strong directional change underway (think climate change), longterm studies produce. If done systematically, they point to unambiguous changes and can separate a signal from its attendant noise. That’s why weather norms are reviewed each thirty years. The normal high temperature in Albany (as I write this on 10/2/16) is 67 degrees F. That’s an average for the date over at least a couple of decades.

Do you think that number is going to change as we move ahead for a couple of more decades? I do.

So there are the brave soles on Putney Mountain counting and identifying birds of prey to species every day. They know, for example, with a high degree of confidence, that Broad-winged hawk movements show a strong peak about 9/16. The date might vary a bit because some weather event might motivate a bolus of birds to move — say after the passage of a cold front, where a northwest tail wind would save the birds some energy. The peak, however, is invariably somewhere in the middle of September. They can say the same kind of thing for most other raptors on the move in the fall. Because they have done this study for many years, they will be the first to know if the Broad-wing peak changes or if any number changes dramatically. Further, if their observations jive with similar observations at other watch sights on the birds’ path, then we have very strong evidence that things are changing. A three or four-year study of any kind would not allow this conclusion.

Scientists make mistakes, and so do citizens.  So, at times, citizen science has limitations. Will we know how many mallards are in greater Brattleboro on December 17th? No. But if we see a mallard, even that is significant. Presence/absence data, by itself, can be very useful. For example, years ago a paper appeared in a very prestigious science journal that used the Audubon data (just presence or absence) and showed southward eruptions of seed-eating boreal forest finches as far south as Arizona and New Mexico (frequently, these birds don’t leave Canada all winter). These eruptions occurred about every two years. The long-term data showed this. What would a one or two-year study have shown?

Want to see this process or get involved yourself? Walk out (one mile) to the north end of Putney Mountain to see these people in action, or contact your local Audubon group to participate in this year’s December count. If you don’t want to “rough it” out of doors, you can sit in your toasty living room and score the events at your bird feeder.