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'Citizen scientists' watch for signs of climate change

People with no formal training are helping scientists track and record birds, fish, stars, and plants in their neighborhoods online.

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For the past dozen years, watchers have been able to report on nests over the Internet, too. These data have been used in more than 150 peer-reviewed and published scientific papers by professional scientists, says Janis Dickinson, director of citizen science at the lab and an associate professor of natural resources at Cornell University.

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Reports are remarkably accurate

NestWatch "is not good for counting how many nests of a certain kind are out there," Dr. Dickinson says, since there's no way of knowing the percentage of nests being observed. "But it's really good for telling when the birds are breeding." Of particular interest now is how climate change may be affecting breeding cycles.

"If we can secure funding to get the historic nest-record cards entered into NestWatch, the data will cover exactly the right time period" for studying this question, she says.

The data collected are often remarkably accurate, and the large sample sizes make the analysis very powerful even when there are errors in the data.

When a citizen scientist reports a bird that normally doesn't live in a region, a reviewer for the lab will contact the volunteer to confirm the sighting. Often the citizen scientist will send in a photo to prove that the bird is really there, even though it's a rare or unexpected sighting.

Occasional mistakes, such as accidentally keyboarding an extra digit to a number, are easily spotted as part of some 500 "filters" the lab uses to catch anomalies in the data, Dickinson says.

Celebrate Urban Birds, another citizen science program at the lab, is an easy entry-level project that lets people report sightings of 16 common species. In the Great Backyard Bird Count, conducted in February, volunteers tally migrating birds at a time when they are at the southernmost point in their migration.

For those who love nature but can't get outside, NestCams let birders peer inside nests via their computers, and its sister project, CamClickrs, allows them to report in on what they see. Researchers can't be constantly watching the NestCams, so citizen scientists help by reporting whether they're seeing an empty or occupied nest, chicks or adults, and making other observations.

Part data entry, part social network

For the participants, NestCams is a social network and CamClickrs "is a game," Dickinson says. "You get these [online] conversations around what's happened" at a particular nest, she says. Some are purely emotional reactions. If a snake gets into a nest, for example, NestCam viewers may want someone to save the chicks. But the nest and camera may be in another state, Dickinson says, and, besides, that would be interfering with the course of nature.

Numerous other groups conduct similar citizen scientist programs, says Shawn Carlson, founder and executive director of the Society for Amateur Scientists (SAS) in Aurora, Ill. The key to success, he says, is that "people have to feel valued and have to see that their effort has gone to something worthwhile."

Amateur science is like a pyramid, Dr. Carlson says, with people who participate in wildlife counts at the bottom, learning the basics of collecting scientific data. At the top are a handful of serious amateurs who have managed to get their work published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.