From Pen and Ink to Mobile Apps: Birdwatching and The Growth of Citizen Science


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The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White

The Natural History of Selborne by Reverend Gilbert White: Image by Liam Quin

How has technology impacted birdwatching and other citizen-scientist activities?

Amateur scientists have been contributing to the world’s knowledge base for centuries.

In eighteenth century England, Gilbert White kept painstaking records of the plants and animals in his neighborhood. His letters to prominent scientists (collected in The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne) earned him a lasting reputation as one of England’s first ecologists.

White favored observation over collecting, learned to identify birds by their song, and was one of the first to distinguish the Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita), Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus), and Wood Warbler (Phylloscopus sibilatrix) in the field—three species so similar that they are difficult to identify visually, especially without high-powered binoculars.

Around the same time, John Bartram of Pennsylvania described and collected plants in southeastern America, and sent specimens to botanists in Europe—including Carl Linnaeus. He’s considered the “father of American botany,” cofounded the America Philosophical Society, and was appointed King’s Botanist for North America by George III.

Neither White nor Betram had much formal science education.

From Amateur Naturalists To Citizen Scientists

Amateur naturalists still collaborate with professional scientists, sending them their observations, even helping conduct research projects. These days, this collaboration is often referred to as “citizen science,” defined as “public participation in organized research efforts.” These efforts range from single day events to multi-year surveys.

A BioBlitz takes place in one day (24 hours), in one place. Volunteers of varying levels of skill work with professional scientists and skilled naturalists to identify as many species as they can in that place, from birds to insects, mammals to microbes, and plants to fungi. In 2011, volunteers identified over 360 species at Point Defiance Park in Tacoma, WA, during a BioBlitz. Their work will help in the development of a forest management plan.

At the other extreme, it took nearly a decade to collect the data for the Washington State Breeding Bird Atlas. Between 1987 and 1996, over 600 volunteers devoted tens of thousands of hours to the project. Trudging through the nooks and crannies of the state, they found out which birds (over 260 species) nest in the state and where. Together they gathered over 100,000 data points.

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