If you like to watch birds, scientists need your help! By taking a small step from watching birds to documenting what you see, you can turn an enjoyable pastime into an even more rewarding experience that ultimately helps the birds. You can contribute in many different ways, whether you like to watch birds at your feeder, at a local park, or on birding trips throughout the Western Hemisphere.
Top Five Questions About Getting Started in Citizen Science
1. Why take part?
Participating in a citizen-science project helps advance scientific discovery, enhances your personal discoveries about birds as you observe them - and contributes to a better understanding of birds and how to protect them.
More than 800 bird species inhabit the United States, and many of them move across entire continents during the course of the year. No single scientist or team of scientists could possibly document where all of these birds are--or how their numbers change from one year to the next. Birds face daunting challenges from environmental threats such as urbanization, agriculture, pollution, and global climate change. If we don't know how birds are faring, we won't know how to help them.
Fortunately, birds are fun to watch – and millions of people see birds every day. By taking the extra step to report their sightings, bird watchers can help keep tabs on how birds are faring from Canada to South America. As of April 2009, the Avian Knowledge Network had amassed more than 55 million records, much of it from citizen-science participants. These data are a rich source of information for bird study and conservation.
2. How long does it take?
You decide: As little as 15 minutes, or as long as you like.
Some projects, such as the Great Backyard Bird Count, take as little as 15 minutes a year. Others, like Project FeederWatch, allow you to contribute observations as often as every week in the winter. Year-round projects such as eBird enable you to participate as little or as often as you like.
The most valuable way to participate is by recording information the same way at the same location through time. Some participants have recorded birds at the same spot for decades! This gives scientists the best information to detect change through time.
3. Do you have to be a bird expert to participate?
No. Several citizen-science projects are suitable for beginners or intermediate bird watchers.
If you’re a beginner, try a project such as the Great Backyard Bird Count or My Yard eBird, which enable you to report just the bird species that you recognize. And the more you participate, the more you’ll learn!
4. How do you get started?
It's fun. The first step is to pick a project.
Pick a project that fits your style – including the time of year when you want to participate, the amount of time you have, and the type of bird watching you like to do. That can be observing birds at a feeder or monitoring nests. Scientists want your help. Get started today by taking a look at our list of projects.
5. Do scientists really use the data?
You bet they do!
Scientists use data from participants in all kinds of ways – from improving the basic understanding of birds to recommending conservation actions to policy makers. Here are just a few examples.
- Informing the nation's highest levels of leadership: The 2009 State of the Birds report, released by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and presented at Congressional briefings, was based largely on data from participants of the Christmas Bird Count and Breeding Bird Survey.
- Creating practical guidelines for land managers: Based on citizen-science data, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s land managers' guides recommend the best ways to improve habitats for forest birds. The Partners in Flight North American Landbird Conservation Plan identifies conservation priorities and actions.
- Advancing the scientific understanding of birds: Citizen-science participants have helped document the impact and dynamics of disease such as West Nile virus and House Finch eye disease. They have helped to clear up mysteries, such as why Blue Jays chip off and eat house paint. Participants have provided basic information about the nesting habits of birds, as featured in the The Birds of North America Online, the definitive reference from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists’ Union.
- Helping make large-scale ecological changes visible: Citizen-science participants have helped document how birds are affected by global climate change and acid rain. And projects like the Great Backyard Bird Count and eBird raise the public awareness of birds by enabling any website visitor to see dynamic maps, graphs, and charts of where the birds are – all based on data from participants.