Citizen Science Program

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Citizen Science Participant

Citizen Science is an exciting, multifaceted way to bring people and birds together for conservation. 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

Citizen-Science Projects

We offer 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.

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 100,000 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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Bird Cams

By watching Bird Cams online, visitors from around the world enjoy live images and streaming videos of birds at their nests. Most recently, our Bird Cams have allowed viewers to follow the courtship, nesting, and chick-raising activities of Red-tailed Hawks, Great Blue Herons, and Osprey. Bird Cams are a unique learning experience for the study and appreciation of animal behavior, viewed by hundreds of thousands of people in more than 130 countries.

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Celebrate Urban Birds

Celebrate Urban Birds engages urban and rural residents in science, cultural, and community activities related to birds. Participants receive or download a free kit with posters, flower seeds, and data forms, then 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 nearly 5,000 community organizations and distributed more than 100,000 kits in English and Spanish. The National Forum on Children and Nature selected Celebrate Urban Birds as one of 30 nationally significant projects to connect children with the outdoors.

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The YardMap Network

Now in Beta, the YardMap Network is an NSF-funded project that builds online communities to investigate the impacts of bird-friendly and carbon-neutral practices in backyards, community gardens, and parks. Participants will locate their yards or parks on a Google maps interface, then document their sustainable practices, such as adding native plants, putting up bird feeders, installing a solar panel, or biking to work. YardMap will serve as a detailed site description for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s citizen-science bird observations. By providing access to rich media resources for learning about sustainable practices and enabling people share their maps and practices with each other, YardMap strives to create online conservation communities engaged in real life sustainable practices. The YardMap Network will be tested and launched in 2011, in partnership with the National Audubon Society, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Roger Tory Peterson Institute, Empire State College’s online alumni program, and the American Community Gardening Association.

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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.

Research

Citizen Science director Janis Dickinson leads a research team investigating topics in bird behavior, conservation, and human dimensions. Dr. Dickinson holds appointments as associate professor in Cornell University’s Department of Natural Resources and associate professor in the field of Neurobiology and Behavior.

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.

Breeding Ecology and Conservation of the Common Nighthawk

The Common Nighthawk is a Neotropical migrant that breeds across North America. Although nighthawks are still locally common in some areas, they appear to be declining across their range, especially in urban and suburban areas. Unfortunately, nighthawk populations are difficult to census using traditional methods, so it has been difficult to assess changes in abundance over time. Cornell graduate student Rebecca Lohnes and Brett Sandercock at Kansas State University have developed a method enabling citizen-science participants across North America to monitor breeding populations of nighthawks. In addition, Rebecca has studied the breeding ecology of common nighthawks at the Konza Prairie Biological Field Station, Kansas, examining the influence of nest location, adult and chick behavior, and nest microclimate on nest success. She hopes that information about nest site characteristics of a relatively robust population of birds in native prairie will help to inform urban restoration efforts.

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 director 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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Clark’s Nutcracker and the Endangered Whitebark Pine Ecosystem

Whitebark pine ecosystems are rapidly disappearing in the western United States, and anecdotal evidence has shown that declining whitebark pine communities contributing to declines in local Clark’s Nutcracker populations. Clark’s Nutcrackers eat and store the trees’ seeds, and the seedlings sprout almost exclusively from seeds that the nutcrackers have stored. This interdependency between whitebark pine trees and Clark’s Nutcrackers has caused considerable concern about the future of both species, and leads to questions about the requirements for restoring deforested sites. Graduate student Taza Schaming is studying Clark’s Nutcrackers and conducting habitat surveys in Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming, filling an urgent need to understand the survival, reproductive success, habitat use, and behavior of this unique, poorly known bird. Her work will help determine appropriate sampling methods for surveying Clark’s Nutcrackers in different habitat types, and she will model spatial and temporal changes of the birds’ occupancy and abundance as a function of whitebark pine and overall conifer density, cone crop, and the surrounding landscape. These data will be used to help generate a conservation strategy for the nutcracker-whitebark pine system.

Conservation Research: Black-capped Petrels

Black-capped Petrels are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, due to drastic habitat loss on their breeding grounds and predation by invasive mammals including cats, rats, and mongoose. The global population is estimated to be as low as 2,000 birds. Of three remaining known breeding sites (two in Haiti, and one in the Dominican Republic), the site at La Visite, Haiti, is the largest, and harbors up to 90% of breeding Black-capped Petrels. Unfortunately, this forest is shrinking rapidly because local people have few or no economic alternatives to cutting trees for daily cooking fuel and expanding slash-and-burn agriculture to replace degraded lands. The tragic earthquake in January 2010 will inevitably increase pressure on the forest due to the exodus of people from the capital, Port-au-Prince. With support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, graduate student Jim Goetz worked with collaborators to conduct surveys at the three main sites, trained local biologists, and will continue to collect data on the petrels’ abundance and breeding biology. Most importantly, the group will continue to engage with local and international partners to identify critical conservation areas and explore alternative livelihoods for local people to preserve as much remaining forest as possible.

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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