Over the years we’ve participated in several science projects that have produced actual data for actual scientific studies. These projects have been useful for supplementing our education, encouraging us to notice nature more closely, opening us to new experiences, and providing a conduit for wonder and further research.
I’m putting together a 3-part series for this blog, listing many of the citizen science resources I’ve found recently. We haven’t participated in all of these programs, but they all look interesting to me. If you know of any other citizen science projects that kids can be involved in, contact me and I’ll check it out.
Today I’ll start with projects dealing with birds. The second post will be about plants and other animals, and the third will be about Zooniverse, a website full of different ideas. [Added 10/1 – click here to see the second post; click here to see the third.] I might also include some water monitoring and weather collecting projects. I’ll be putting these up over the course of the next week. I’m interested to know if any of you have participated in any of these projects, and what you thought of them. [If you want to get really nerdy, you can read the recent online journal issue put out by the Ecological Society of America, containing multiple articles about citizen science and its role in serious research.]
Birding research seems particularly well suited to the citizen science model. There are many programs you can choose from if your kids are interested in learning more about birds. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has several that they’ve developed.
Project FeederWatch is a winter survey of birds that visit feeders throughout North America. It runs November 10 through the beginning of April. This project has a $15 fee that covers a Research Kit, web support, and other materials they’ll send to you. Homeschoolers and other educators can dowload a free PDF file giving guidance for activities to do along with the program, and can also choose to purchase an optional kit providing more in-depth and integrative research ideas. Data that are collected from all over the country allow researchers to keep track of bird population trends over time and space. Participants decide how often and how long they will record the birds they see.
If you aren’t ready to commit to a months-long research project, and if you live in an urban environment, then perhaps you’ll like Celebrate Urban Birds, also coordinated by Cornell Lab or Ornithology. For this project, you only need to learn a few common birds and observe them in a limited area for 10 minutes at a time. Then you enter your data online and you’re done! When participants sign up they get a free kit with a poster and information about the birds, as well as a packet of sunflower seeds you can grow. This program also encourages community involvement and integration with the arts, and is available in Spanish as well as English.
If you find an interesting bird during any of your bird counts, you can enter them onto the eBird website. EBird is an online database that keeps a checklist for you of the birds you’ve seen and heard. It compiles your data along with everyone else’s, and the data can be accessed and analyzed in graphs and charts of various sorts. This program allows researchers to collect data from all over the continent, and to track and analyze bird abundance and distribution through space and time.
Connected to eBird and Project Feeder Watch is a separate yet integrated program called BirdSleuth. This collection of resources gives teachers and families tools to use citizen science programs with their kids. There are some free resources you can download and some paid kits you can order for more in-depth bird science ideas.
As you delve deeper into learning about birds, you can work on a newer program called YardMap. According to the website, YardMap is “designed to cultivate a richer understanding of bird habitat, both for professional scientists and people concerned with their local environments.” You can make a map of the different habitats in your yard online using satellite photos and fairly simple computer tools. They promise to help you improve the bird habitat in your yard, as well. This program looks like it’s in the Beta mode now, but it looks like something fun to play around with and learn from.
If you’re lucky enough to find a nest being used by birds, you can participate in the NestWatch program. This program requires you to become certified using their online training program (we haven’t tried this yet), and then you find a nest and monitor it every few days throughout the season. This is probably best suited for older kids and adults, but younger children will be interested in what’s happening, as well.
When February rolls around, you can participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count. Count for as little or as long as you want during the four-day period, and then enter your data online. The GBBC has a kids’ page with online games to help you learn the common birds you might see. This is a nice one to do for a change of pace during the winter months, when the doldrums set in before spring arrives.
Our local Audubon group, the Seattle Audubon Society, organizes a winter seabird count once a month. In the Puget Sound Seabird Survey, observers go out to established sites and take a census of seabirds there. This one does take a more established protocol, but I bet young birding families could be paired up with experienced birders for the census. Your local Audubon chapter might have a program like this, too.
Another winter bird count is the Christmas Bird Count, sponsored by the Audubon Society. You’ll need to find a local counting group through a nearby Audubon chapter. This takes place from December 14, 2012 through January 5, 2013. It’s the longest running wildlife census (this will be the 113th year!), and has been very useful to help researchers assess the long-term health of bird populations.
And if all these programs aren’t enough to satisfy your budding birder, you might be lucky enough to have a non-profit volunteer banding group nearby. Here in the Seattle area we have the Puget Sound Bird Observatory. We attended their family banding camp during the summer of 2012, and observed researchers as they caught, banded, recorded and released wild birds up in the mountains. Teens and adults can learn how to band birds for science. And anyone can participate in the Birds Wintering in Urban Landscapes program.
This project puts colored bands on common winter songbirds’ legs in yards and parks that have good wildlife habitat. Then volunteers walk around the neighborhood to see if they can see where these birds go. We’ve been able to participate as observers for this project, and it has been the one that has sparked the most curiosity and passion for my two kids.
You can see this is a pretty long list of possibilities! Every interested family should be able to find at least one program that meets their needs for time, commitment, and level of expertise. To be clear, we haven’t participated in all of these projects, and I wouldn’t try to do them all at the same time. But doing a citizen science project can help make science real and alive for young learners. These projects will help get you outside into nature, instead of learning about science from a book or TV program. They can help kids feel more powerful as they realize they are contributing real scientific data, and advancing scientific knowledge. I’d love to hear your experiences with citizen science! Write me a note in the comments if you’d like to share about your experiences with any of these projects.