Citizen Science Program

How You Can Help

We rely on your support to conduct citizen science projects to understand birds and the environment

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Citizen Science Participant

The Cornell Lab’s Citizen Science program offers an array of projects that engage thousands of people in recording bird observations—whether in backyards, city streets, or remote forests—to help researchers better understand birds and their responses to environmental change.

Citizen-science participants are part of one of the world’s largest research teams, gathering data on a scale that would be impossible to achieve otherwise. Scientists analyze these data to understand how birds are affected by environmental change, including climate change, urbanization, pollution, and land use. Participants learn about birds and have opportunities to see their own data on maps along with those of thousands of other participants.

Project Highlights

Project FeederWatch

Each year, 15,000 people count birds at their feeders for Project FeederWatch. With more than 1.5 million checklists submitted since 1987, FeederWatchers have contributed valuable data enabling scientists to monitor changes in the distribution and abundance of birds. Using FeederWatch data, scientists have studied the influence of nonnative species on native bird communities, examined the association between birds and habitats, and tracked unpredictable movements in winter bird populations. Participants gain from the rewarding experience of watching birds at their feeders and contributing their own observations to reveal larger patterns in bird populations across the continent.

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NestWatch

By finding and monitoring bird nests, NestWatch participants help scientists track the breeding success of birds across North America. Participants witness fascinating behaviors of birds at the nest and collect information on the location, habitat, bird species, number of eggs, and number of young. Scientists use these data to track the reproductive success of North American breeding birds across the continent. Launched in 2007 with funding from the National Science Foundation, NestWatch has collected more than 150,000 nesting records. Combined with historic data, this information will help scientists address how birds are affected by large-scale changes such as global climate change, urbanization, and land use.

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Celebrate Urban Birds

Celebrate Urban Birds is a bilingual citizen science project focused on underserved urban and rural communities. Participants observe a small, defined bird-watching area for 10 minutes and report on the presence or absence of 16 species of birds. The project assesses the value of green spaces for birds, ranging in size from a potted plant to half a basketball court. Launched in 2007, Celebrate Urban Birds has partnered with more than 12,000 community organizations and distributed more than 500,000 educational kits in English and Spanish. The project offers mini-grants once a year to support community events involving birds, habitat improvement, and the arts. Seasonal Challenges, including the annual Funky Nests in Funky Places Challenge, offer participants opportunities to share their photos, art, videos, stories, and poems, and win prizes.

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Habitat Network

Habitat Network is a community of people concerned with wildlife and the sustainability of the places we live and work. We collect detailed maps of landscapes and people's practices to document what is happening in our communities and explore how collective efforts to transform yards and urban landscapes into more diverse habitat may support wildlife and connect people to nature in communities around the world. Read in-depth articles on creating wildlife habitat, contribute your own map and pictures to our citizen science database, and connect to others concerned about science-based understanding of residential ecology.

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Additional Citizen-Science Projects

Additional citizen-science projects include eBird and the Great Backyard Bird Count, developed by the Cornell Lab Information Science program in partnership with the National Audubon Society.

The FeederWatch Climate Project: Birds, Landscape Ecology, and Climate Change

Climate change and habitat loss are two of the most pressing environmental concerns of the 21st century. Research associate Ben Zuckerberg is analyzing more than 20 years of data contributed by Project FeederWatch participants to study the effects of climate and land-use change on wintering bird populations, including how habitat loss and shifting winter weather may affect wintering birds at local and regional scales. In collaboration with David Bonter and Janis Dickinson from the Cornell Lab, and Art DeGaetano at the Northeast Regional Climate Center, Ben is combining Project FeederWatch data with sophisticated temperature models to capture the dynamic relationship between winter weather and bird populations at scales ranging from weekly changes in feeder behavior to long-term changes in patterns of extinction and colonization.

Citizen-Science Research on Bird Diversity, Distribution, and Abundance

Understanding changes in the distribution and abundance of populations is difficult because birds are so mobile and most species are widely distributed. In addition, fluctuations in food supplies or other changes in resources can cause local fluctuations that may not reflect broader patterns. Are populations really changing, or have the birds simply moved elsewhere? What effect do invasive, nonnative birds have on native bird communities? Do birds move in predictable patterns? These questions can only be answered by gathering observations across large spatial scales over long periods of time. Citizen-science programs such as Project FeederWatch are invaluable for collecting consistent information at spatial and temporal scales necessary to answer these questions. Using a hypothesis-testing approach to explore questions of importance to bird conservation, citizen-science researchers use long-term data, cross-validation with other surveys, and modern statistical approaches to detect patterns, investigate mechanisms, and understand changes.

Public Participation in Science and Conservation

We explore ways to push the boundaries of public participation in ornithology, including using new approaches in citizen science to facilitate science-based grassroots conservation. As urban sprawl increases, homeowners and neighborhood groups can manage yards and landscapes in ways that cumulatively benefit biodiversity—for example, by gardening with native plants and reducing threats such as window strikes and cat predation, which are estimated to kill hundreds of millions of birds each year. We engaged participants in the My Yard Counts project to characterize the susceptibility of various bird species to hazards around residences, including house cats and windows. The YardMap Network, now in development by the Lab’s Citizen Science program, will engage participants not only collecting data on bird populations, but also in measuring the impact of conservation decisions in their yards and homes.

Research on Participation in Science with Latino Audiences

What are Latino communities’ attitudes toward science, technology, and citizen science? In a project supported by the National Science Foundation, Karen Purcell conducted research with targeted Latino communities in six cities (Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix, New York, Miami, and Houston) in collaboration Cecilia Garibay of Garibay Group and Janis Dickinson at the Cornell Lab. The research included family groups and considered culture and context to understand Latino families’ values. The team plans to work with partners to create programs and a new model of leadership that will embed informal science education within Latino communities.

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Behavioral Ecology of Western Bluebirds

Citizen science researcher Janis Dickinson leads a long-term study of Western Bluebirds focusing on cooperative breeding, sexual selection, and behavioral decision-making. For example, she has asked how territory quality, social environment, and individual characteristics influence life decisions—including how the survival and reproduction of young birds is affected by mistletoe wealth and living with parents. Graduate student Caitlin Stern is conducting experiments to examine the cryptic costs and benefits of living near a diversity of relatives during the breeding season. Another study focuses on mating behaviors. Like many songbird species, Western Bluebirds are socially monogamous and essentially mate for life, but nearly half the time females lay eggs that are sired by males other than the social father. Postdoctoral associate Elise Donnelly Ferree has used microsatellite DNA fingerprinting to explore the benefits of extra-pair mating for males and females, the age and plumage characteristics of individuals that are successful in extra-pair mating, and whether offspring sired by the social father or an outside male differ in survival, reproductive success, and future mating behavior. The research on Western Bluebirds is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation.

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Demographic Studies of the Golden Swallow, a Vulnerable Species

A relative of the North American Tree Swallow, the Golden Swallow was last seen in Jamaica in the 1980s, and is vulnerable to extinction on Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Graduate student Jim Goetz is studying the Golden Swallow in both countries to gather key information needed for effective conservation planning, including life history and demographic data. As part of the Golondrinas de las Americas program which is directed by Cornell professor David Winkler, Jim set up more than 200 nest boxes at two sites. At the first site, the swallows did not nest in any of the boxes; it appeared that they had plenty of attractive nest sites in limestone cliffs and tree cavities. However, at the second site swallows nested in 8 of 80 boxes the first year. This suggests a relative lack of natural nest cavities at a location without limestone cliffs, and with a younger forest that offers fewer natural tree cavities. Ongoing demographic research on pairs nesting in boxes and in natural cavities will help to conserve this beautiful swallow. This work is funded by the National Science Foundation.

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